Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Agri food sector needs unfettered access to UK

Downing on politics

Choppy sea ahead: Theresa May and Enda Kenny outside No 10 Downing Street Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire
Choppy sea ahead: Theresa May and Enda Kenny outside No 10 Downing Street Photo: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

A flying visit to England just days ago helped me reduce the complex Brexit tale to two big themes which conflict with one another.

Drive the English motorways for an hour and you see the non-stop torrent of huge trucks, from every corner of Britain and Europe, carrying the widest diversity of products. A little later, walk the main streets of a strong market town and you see people of every skin colour, speaking in a plethora of languages other than English.

This is a thumbnail sketch of the clashing themes of Brexit: continued access to trade versus demands for immigration control.

Britain is the sixth largest economy in the world and its wealth has always been focused on trade. In a post-Brexit world the London government ideally wants to keep full access to the EU's single market of 440 million people in 27 other countries.

But the vote to quit the European Union on June 23 last was a gut decision by a huge swathe of mainly English people trying to "take back control." Migration, and the need to curb it, was a big emotional theme in that most visceral of decisions.

The big puzzler in the upcoming negotiations on framing a new set of relationships between the United Kingdom and the European Union turns on trying to reconcile what presents at the start of negotiations as irreconcilable.

Britain, and those others among the remaining 27 states which are sympathetic to the idea of keeping maximum trade links, could make headway on the economic realities of the need to optimise trade. But even those sympathetic to Britain acknowledge that free movement of people within the EU is a fundamental and inviolate issue.

EU governments, less sympathetic to Britain's 43-year indecision on whether they want in or out, are holding a trump card here. And London has very limited wriggle room as opinion polls continue to show immigration control is still a hot political topic.

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This big picture dilemma also summarises Ireland's "piggy-in-the-middle" dilemma. Our agri-food business above all needs continued and unfettered access to the British market without any return of tariffs or trade impediments.

The de facto reality that the border running from Derry to Dundalk risks becoming an EU-UK frontier enmeshes with the whole migration issue. It raises complex but very practical questions about Ireland and Britain's "free movement of people" which existed long before the EU was even thought of.

Two random practical thoughts present from among an almost limitless range of potential remedies. We could for example revert to what happened during the "Emergency", known elsewhere as World War II, when identity checks for all of Ireland north and south were imposed at British points of entry.

That would leave DUP stalwarts of the United Kingdom strangely presenting identity at British ports and airports, while travelling to and from the Republic without any bother. Then there is the idea of bringing in a "high-tech" Border between the Republic and the North for customs and/or identity checks.

Well, it would ameliorate the distressing prospect of long queues of trucks outside Newry. But for all that, it would be a border by any other name.

The level of cross-border farm trade gives huge urgency to all of this. It helps to talk out the myriad problems and potential remedies. But we remain as wise as we were in the early hours of June 24 last when this Brexit horror news descended upon us.

Then, as now, we have utterly no positives to take from Brexit.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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