After the end, the beginning. The long months of talks in Brussels have brought forth a draft withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union – all 585 pages of it. Amid the drama, the essential themes are clear. There will be a backstop agreement to the deal without an end date and with no ability for the UK to extricate ourselves without the consent of a third party. And there will be a grave threat to the Union.
Northern Ireland will find itself in a different regulatory regime to the rest of our country – to use the analogy that is being deployed about the “backstop within a backstop”, it will be in the deep end of the swimming pool while the rest of us are only paddling up to our knees. This represents gold dust for the Scottish Nationalists, who will seize on a different arrangement for one part of the country to demand a separate arrangement for Scotland.
We will be asked to sign up to all this, and hand over £39 thousand million, in exchange for a flimsy 15-page “political declaration” about the hoped-for trade relationship that would lie beyond this, should we ever be able to escape. That political declaration will be drafted to mean all things to all men, but will lead inexorably to the ultra-high alignment agreed at Chequers in July rather than the Canada-style free trade deal we should be aiming for. There will be so-called “non-regression clauses” to ensure the UK cannot out-compete the EU. This would scupper our hopes of being a global trading titan and bind us into EU manufacturing rules in perpetuity. As humiliations go, this would be complete and unendurable. The Prime Minister will have unerringly delivered a deal that delivers none of the benefits of leaving the EU and none of the benefits of remaining.
85 years ago, Churchill warned:
“All down the centuries, one peculiarity of the English people has cost them dear. We have always thrown away after a victory the greater part of the advantages we have gained in the struggle. The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within… from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians… Nothing can save England if she will not save herself. If we lose faith in ourselves, in our capacity to guide and govern, if we lose our will to live, then indeed our story is told.”
Such will be the legacy of Brexit if this deal goes through. The brave decision of the British people to leave the European Union, taken in the largest democratic vote in our history, will have been reduced in two years to a shameful and squalid surrender. This must be resisted at all costs, and I have little doubt that the House of Commons will indeed defeat the deal should matters go that far.
The burning question will then arise: what next?
A deal may still be salvageable, based around the broad and generous offer made by European Council President Donald Tusk in March. This would be an advanced free trade agreement, encompassing services and covering all sectors with zero tariffs and no quantitative limitations. Alongside this the UK would offer deep security cooperation and mutual recognition of practical issues from aviation regulations to driving licences. The EU’s offer, of course, was made to Great Britain and not the whole of the UK. The EU was not prepared to extend its offer to Northern Ireland – hence so much of the tortuous negotiation that has ensued.
But there is a way to deliver such an agreement, in the form of a free-standing treaty on trade facilitation between the UK and Ireland to be negotiated in parallel to the wider negotiations, as it surely could be. Such a treaty would deliver an invisible border that would satisfy WTO rules and could be referenced in the wider UK-EU free trade agreement. There would be no hard border and no need for a backstop beyond this.
This seems to me to represent a deal that could secure sufficient votes to satisfy Brussels and pass the House of Commons. In tandem with this, an immense national effort must be set in motion so that the UK Government and businesses prepare themselves day and night between now and 29th March next year for a no-deal scenario. Every moment that passes without such an effort is a moment wasted, and weakens our hand in securing the good Brexit deal that our country expects and deserves.
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The 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is constructed on the principle of consent, including;
- Consent of the British Government that a part of its territory, Northern Ireland, will be subject to special arrangements, including those with the Irish Republic;
- Consent that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only occur if desired by a majority;
- Consent by the Nationalist community there to the present constitutional status, along with a mechanism to change that status, if a majority so desire; and
- Consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly to any alteration in the cross-border arrangements
All these interlacing sets of arrangements are delicately balanced and were arrived at after many years of painstaking discussion and compromises. The Agreement represented no single party or side’s ideal but there was enough consensus there to achieve a durable settlement on the basis of consent.
The hardline demands of the EU today, essentially driven by the Government in Dublin, are light years away from the approach which characterised that of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the late 1990s and made the Agreement possible. The Agreement was designed to usher in a new and constructive era of mature relations between the UK and Ireland. We were to become close partners over a whole series of areas.
The reaction of the authorities in Dublin to British efforts to negotiate a sensible and smooth Brexit has been the antithesis of the process that led to the GFA. Instead of the two Governments’ commitment to “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours “, there has been a stubborn resistance to accepting the UK decision to leave the EU. This has been alongside a strong alliance with implacable Remainers in London. This has made the Brexit process much more difficult and fed into the agenda of those in Brussels, and also Paris, who are determined to make an example of Britain for daring to leave their club. It is completely contrary to Ireland’s real national interest and the spirit of the GFA.
This hardline policy from Dublin is now endangering the entire GFA, which can only function as long as the participants in that Agreement are willing for it to do so. Demanding that Northern Ireland is detached economically from the rest of the United Kingdom, without the consent of the population, carries the danger of strongly alienating one side of the community there. Frustrating the UK’s efforts to come to a balanced accommodation with Brussels will inevitably lead to some in London questioning the foundation on which the GFA is based, trust that Ireland and the UK can be close and mutually supportive allies. There is also the damage that is being done to community relations in Northern Ireland.
The GFA recognised that cross border co-operation was dependent on consensus north of the Border. Meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council always had at least one Minister from either side of the communal divide; and the GFA specifically states that any further development of North-South arrangements is “to be by agreement… with the specific endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas (Irish Houses of Parliament)”. By seeking to bypass the consent of one side of the community, the Irish Government is deepening division and undermining the whole basis on which the GFA was built. This position is developed further in our recent Policy Exchange paper The Irish Border and the Principle of Consent.
The upholding of the GFA is, of course, a laudable aim and is shared by authorities in Dublin, Brussels and London. The maintenance of the present mutually beneficial arrangements on the Irish border is also very desirable. The present policy course by Dublin is unlikely to achieve either. By ignoring the essential element of consent, the Irish Government is placing the progress of decades of good work in jeopardy.
There needs to be a new British/Irish initiative to break the present logjam by making a declaration that the future of the border will not be used to stop the signing of a Withdrawal Agreement. Both the EU and the UK should undertake to use their best efforts to preserve all existing measures to secure an invisible border and to preserve all existing measures of cross border co-operation under the aegis of the GFA. This would allow Brexit to proceed in an ordered manner and the two-year transition period to kick in. The future trade talks would hopefully achieve the above aspiration.
The alternative – a continued impasse, economic damage and resultant ill feelings all round – is in nobody’s interest.
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The Prime Minister describes the backstop as an insurance policy which no one in the UK or the EU wants or expects to use.
In fact the backstop was introduced by the EU and the EU has refused to concede the point, because the EU actually intends to use this legally-binding provision as a powerful lever in future negotiations.
If the UK signs a Withdrawal Agreement which includes any form of effective backstop, consider the negotiating position the UK would be in after we leave the EU.
During the negotiations on any future trade agreement, the EU would be in a position to demand whatever terms they choose: full compliance with all EU regulations, free movement of goods, services, people and capital and even compliance with EU taxation policy all under the jurisdiction of the ECJ. The UK could also be required to make huge payments to the EU for the privilege of permitting the EU to sell £95bn more goods to us than we do to the EU.
If the UK ultimately rejects the unreasonable trade terms offered by the EU, the transition period will ultimately end and the EU will exercise the backstop. Northern Ireland would become part of the Single Market and the Customs Union and be torn away from the rest of the UK with a border down the Irish Sea or the entire UK would permanently be locked into the Customs Union under the ECJ. That is precisely the reverse of what Theresa May says she is seeking to achieve.
The backstop is not an insurance policy which will never be needed or used. It is an ingenious device developed by the EU to create a comprehensive lock on the future trade and regulatory policy of the UK thereby ensuring that the UK would be under the absolute control of the EU and ECJ and could never effectively compete with the EU.
The EU’s negotiating strategy is brilliant and the UK would be the suckers. With any form of effective backstop, the UK would become a powerless vassal state with no negotiating position in terms of trade or any other policies that the EU chose to impose and the £39bn would have been committed irrevocably.
Clearly, the EU planned from the start to neutralise all of the UK’s strongest negotiating cards by demanding that the £39bn payment be unconditional and developing the Northern Ireland border issue and then introducing the backstop as a mechanism ultimately to force the UK to remain under the EU’s overall control. Olly Robbins and the rest of the Civil service are probably complicit in this deception which would achieve their preference of keeping the UK in the EU, if necessary, by stealth.
The critical importance of this issue is to understand how the dynamics of the trade negotiations will inevitably unfold during the transition period if the UK walks naively into the EU’s Backstop trap.
What is at stake with the EU’s backstop is the entire future of the UK as an independent sovereign state. If the UK concedes any form of backstop then the UK will have conceded the country’s sovereignty on a scale unprecedented in the democratic history of the United Kingdom. There is no conceivable basis that agreeing to a backstop can be in the national interest and it is certainly not a price to be paid for so-called “frictionless trade” with the EU.
The post The EU’s backstop is not an insurance policy but a trap appeared first on BrexitCentral.
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