Wednesday 13 December 2017

John Downing: May's strong message that UK will not be 'half-in/half-out' means headaches for Ireland

But PM’s first Brexit speech does stress the need to avoid Border controls

A woman takes part in a protest against Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Photo: Reuters
A woman takes part in a protest against Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

IRELAND will be reassured by British Prime Minister Theresa May stressing the need to avoid a return to the Border - and also keep the Ireland-UK common travel area.

But her insistence that the UK will leave both the EU Single Market – and full membership of the EU customs union – underlines the difficulties of keeping things as they are between these two islands in a post Brexit world.

This was the British Prime Minister’s first formal outline of her government’s hopes for the upcoming EU-UK divorce talks which will start at the end of March and take some two years.

In it Mrs May spelt out some key points:

* The UK cannot stay in the full EU Single Market, which since January 1993 has guaranteed free movement of capital, goods, services and people.  Brexit means London wants to control migration and therefore people movement. It also plans to reject EU Court of Justice powers to settle single market disputes.

* It equally wants to end full EU customs union membership. This provides free movement of goods. But it bans making trade deals with others – which Britain wants to do. The use of the words “full membership” suggests she may be open to some partial deal – possible for some trade sectors.

* Mrs May said Britain may try to stay with some EU programmes and try for a transition period to avoid hurling business off a cliff-edge. But this would have to be for a limited period. She also said the British parliament would vote on any final EU-UK deal.

The tone of the comments about the Irish situation will appear helpful. She noted that Brexit meant an EU-UK land border on this island.

“No-one wants to return to the borders of the past. So we will make it a priority to have a practical solution as soon as possible," she said. 

She also said the government would work to maintain the "common travel area" between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

The British Government had up to this revealed few details about what it wants to secure from the Brexit talks due to start in six weeks. Even now we only have four general principles, spelt out in 12 key aims, and Mrs May insisted the details are for the negotiations themselves.

Ireland goes into this process with three clear inter-linked aims, all of which were touched upon by this speech. Firstly, we want no return of the Border with identity or customs checks, which applied up to 20 years ago.

We want to keep the common travel area which is 90 years old. It is good to hear Mrs May concurs – but we must await the outcome of negotiations with the other 26 member states to find out what will happen.

And we also want to keep tariff-free UK-Irish trade which is worth a total of €1.2bn per week. How we do that with Britain outside the Single Market and customs union remains the biggest puzzle of all.

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