I am against Brexit for many reasons, but my primary focus has, and always has been, the effect on Northern Ireland and the destabilising effect it will have on the island of Ireland, in terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. I still very much hope Brexit does not happen and was in London last Saturday for the People’s Vote march (and Sunderland the week before).
I have always thought the chance of a “deal” was low. The ludicrous Brexit vision sold during the referendum has been correctly mocked as golden unicorns for every child and cakeism, inspiring the cakewatch podcast.
My natural pessimism has always put the chance of a deal at below 50-50, apart from a 4 day window from the 4th to 8th December ’17, when indeed it did seem as if a deal were possible.
The 8th Dec ’17 joint report from the negotiators of the EU and the UKGov on progress during phase 1 of negotiations on the United Kingdom’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union states in p 46:
The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and are, as necessary, specific to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. They are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom.
And in p 49:
The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
The 4th December version was v. slightly different as it used the phrase “no emergence of regulatory divergence” but was changed to “full alignment” by the insistence of the UK – which is considered slightly more flexible.
The main difference however between the version of the 4th and 8th Dec was the inclusion of a further paragraph (p50) on the insistence of the DUP. For a good history see Tony Connolly’s article.
In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.
This paragraph was strange. My understanding is that this is totally an internal UK matter. It is outside the competence of the EU and would indeed be illegal for the EU to enforce within existing treaties. Given that May had already ruled out being a member of the Customs Union and Single market, it seemed impossible to reconcile the three paragraphs, setting up the famous trilemma that has dogged negations ever since. My brief period of optimism vanished. It is clear however that as this paragraph was put in by the insistence of the UK it was entirely the UK’s responsibility to work out a solution.
The Current State of Play
A very good summary of the current state of play is given in BEERG blog by Tom Hayes. This is worth reading in full, but the EU and Irish position is very clear, as this passage explains:
As Irish Foreign Affairs Minister and Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Simon Coveney yesterday warned, “There will be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop, end of story.” Adding, “Ireland wants a close future trading deal with the UK, but at this point the commitments already made need to be honoured.” Without a withdrawal agreement there will be no transition. The UK would be out of the EU with no agreement in place on future arrangements on March 29th next.
There is monolithic support for the Irish position in the EU. Guy Verhofstadt (European Parliament Brexit coordinator) has stated “Progress on the Brexit negotiations can be 90 per cent, 95 per cent or even 99 per cent, but as long as there is no solution for the Irish border, as long as the Good Friday agreement is not fully secured, for us in our parliament progress is 0 per cent.”
The position could not be clearer, however there has been every indication that the UK has from the 8th December constantly tried to weasel its way out of its commitments.
May has repeatedly stated that no PM could agree to the backstop. This is considered as ludicrous by the Irish and wider EU – a cynical attempt to appease the DUP and use NI as a pawn, as leverage in the wider future agreement. The reasons have been detailed on Progressive Pulse here and in the BEERG blog quoted earlier.
It can not be stressed more that the Backstop is a simple an “all-weather insurance policy” which never should need to be used. I have an insurance policy on my House which (very fortunately) I have never had to use.
The position of NI within the UK is also not very secure. Ireland in becoming an increasingly wealthy and attractive country, while NI stagnates. For example the recent 2018 UN Human Development Index, an internationally recognised metric of general quality of life, ranks Ireland as 4th globally, ten points ahead of the UK. Opinion polls are moving dramatically and in the case of Brexit with a hard border there is a substantial majority for a United Ireland.
PM May seems to have two obsessions, one with immigration and the other with holding the Union together.
On immigration May seemed completely inept as Home Secretary. As Craig Mackay summarises here:
The rules that define the permitted extent of Freedom of Movement within the European Union allow very much more control than the UK currently exercises. Working EU citizens are allowed in but non-economically active EU citizens can only stay longer than three months if they have sufficient finance and take out a comprehensive sickness insurance policy. Benefit/welfare tourism is illegal and EU citizens who have not been working have no rights to benefits. Theresa May was Home Secretary from 2010 yet she did nothing even though it was in her power simply to implement the rules as drawn up when the UK joined the European Union.
My analysis was that she was starved of funds and put in deliberately to fail as a scapegoat. Cameron and Osbourne realised that immigration – in particular Freedom of Movement (FoM) was vastly positive for the UK economy, but were terrified of making the case for FoM as it was a vote looser with their core constituency.
On the Union, May seems genuinely attached to the Union but blissfully unaware that her behaviour towards the Nationalists in both Scotland and Northern Ireland may backfire spectacularly. On NI in particular there is a very blinkered approach. From the outside at least it seems that May only listens to Unionist voices and acts as if a small majority gives her the right to march roughshod over the minority.
Fintan O’Toole has written a recent analysis which is worth reading in full. On the “precious Union” he discussed the UK’s position that NI is and integral part of the UK (and as British as Finchley – Thatcher’s position, but May’s seems very similar):
This has all the conviction of a brothel-keeper taking umbrage at the very mention of sex. At every stage of the Brexit process we have seen complete indifference to the fate of Northern Ireland. The “precious union” stuff is a gaudy orange garment borrowed from the DUP to cover the most nakedly obvious attitude: this Irish border stuff concerns a faraway people of whom we know nothing and care less. It is not our concern but merely a distraction being used by the EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to deny us the perfect Brexit we deserve and demand.
Indeed a recent Spectator article seems to support this thesis.
The conclusion I come to that it is Scotland that worries May not NI. Allowing NI to have special status will in her mind accelerate the destruction of the Union. The irony is that it is likely to do the exact opposite. Granting NI special status will almost certainly cement NI’s position in the UK for a further decade.
It is clear that without the Backstop there will be no agreement and the likelihood of crashing out with no deal seems high. This will be so catastrophic for the UK that it should not be contemplated under any circumstances. There seems no way of telling the future and the Westminster parliamentary arithmetic is such that there seems no majority for any deal. No deal however is the default state and as David Alan Green says it will happen by “automatic process of law” if nothing is agreed.
My hope is for a complete meltdown in Westminster and a People’s Vote, but in these circumstances we need to expect the unexpected.