Britain’s shabby Brexit diplomacy borders on the unbelievable
In a statement on Tuesday evening, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Commissioner Maros Sefcovic that the EU has a responsibility to ensure that the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of Britain’s Brexit deal, “achieves its original objectives”.
With the UK opting to exit both the customs union and the single market – over other and less abrupt exit options – the objective accepted by Boris Johnson’s government in the exit terms enshrined in the January 2020 treaty could only avoid a hard one Be Border In Ireland.
This was provided for in a protocol to the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which allows Northern Ireland continued access to the internal market and avoids customs checks at the border. The cost, and this is not conceit, is the cost and inconvenience of Northern Ireland’s trade with mainland Britain, and union politicians have objected to the protocol.
Had the UK opted to negotiate closer ties with the EU, and several options had been offered, it could have largely avoided the trade barriers that will intensify as the agreement is implemented in due course.
The binary choice of a withdrawal deal that would displease either unionists or nationalists, with trade disruptions somewhere, was not inevitable and was not implied by the 2016 referendum decision. The customs union avoids tariffs and customs controls, while the single market has non-tariff barriers. If you leave both the customs union and the single market, the best that can be negotiated is a free trade agreement – and that’s done.
The UK has Free Trade Agreements with numerous countries and this one is quite extensive. It avoids tariffs on trade in goods but leaves customs controls and non-tariff barriers between Great Britain, but not Northern Ireland, and the European Union. Those border controls had to be somewhere after the UK decided to leave and opted not to stick with either the customs union or the single market.
The EU would never agree and the UK accepted that there would be a hole the size of Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs and regulatory borders. Politics aside, if the barriers had to be somewhere, the sea was a more manageable place than a 300-mile (480 km) land border.
Whilst most Northern Ireland businesses are not severely affected it appears to be the case in surveys conducted by business association, it is still a nuisance and an undesirable cost.
Although 56 per cent of Northern Ireland voters opted for the Remain option, the referendum was national and resulted in a Leave majority of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. But this majority was the only question on the ballot for leaving the EU. Before the referendum, several prominent Leave activists explicitly denied that a Leave majority would have the consequences that have now paralyzed domestic politics in Northern Ireland.
The UK was free to exit the EU’s political institutions, respecting the vote of the electorate while sticking with the customs union, the single market, or even both.
Following the referendum, British politics became polarized over the form Brexit should take, with many business lobby groups arguing for a milder break than the deal that eventually materialized. This was the framework of the deal that Theresa May’s government hatched when it replaced referendum precursor David Cameron, who left office immediately after his defeat in the June 2016 referendum.
As Ms May recently pointed out, her deal, which was torpedoed along with her tenure as Prime Minister by Johnson’s Brexiteers, with support from the DUP, would not have required a border in the Irish Sea, nor a land border in Ireland.
It would have been a “soft” Brexit. Non-EU countries, including Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, have a wide range of “soft” forms of non-membership, but post-referendum Europhobia, which engulfed the Tory party, ended May’s tenure as Prime Minister and any prospect of one less controversial deal for Northern Ireland. She has understandably galled over the role played by the DUP in the autumn of her tenure as prime minister and appeared still confused about the political logic in the House of Commons last week.
The DUP had pushed for an exit vote, as they had every right to do, but their post-referendum support for a hard Brexit is harder to fathom. David Cameron’s victory in the 2015 general election won 331 Tory seats out of 650. The BBC estimated that only around 40 per cent of these supported the Leave campaign in 2016, adding to the eight DUP members who were all pushing for a Leave vote.
With the referendum settled and the May government committed to implementing the voters’ verdict, it failed stunningly to find a form of Brexit that would minimize the economic damage and preserve UK political capital in Europe.
There were hardly enough Brexiteers to make the actual outcome inevitable or even probable. The DUP’s support for the hardest Brexit available helped undermine May – House of Commons motions to remain in the customs union were lost by just six votes.
The stance of Liz Truss – who was Foreign Secretary for International Trade in Johnson’s cabinet in 2019 and either understood what was agreed in the treaty or failed to inform herself – has already drawn sharp backlash from the European Union, the Irish Government and the Irish government caused by the United States.
Just weeks ago, British ministers reminded Vladimir Putin of the sanctity of international treaties and railed against Russia’s failure to honor the 2014 Minsk accords. The EU could take legal action should the UK government introduce unilateral legislation repealing the protocol and leading to trade wars between the two.
The Anglo-Irish trade in food and live animals would be an early casualty, as would any prospect of a UK-US trade deal. The failure of British diplomacy meets Suez in 1956, with Johnson cast as Anthony Eden.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/britains-shoddy-diplomacy-over-brexit-bordering-on-unbelievable-41650268.html Britain’s shabby Brexit diplomacy borders on the unbelievable