Brexit's brood of chlorinated chickens come home to roost
Britain leaving the single market and the customs union leaves no room for soft Brexit, writes Colm McCarthy
It was never going to be easy to secure a frictionless border in Ireland once the UK exited the European Union. The land borders of a highly integrated market for goods, labour and capital cannot be frictionless unless it shares reciprocal rules of access, tantamount to membership, with its neighbours.
Only the softest form of Brexit could have achieved this and Britain's commitment to departure from the single market and the customs union, in favour of a negotiated free-trade agreement as a third country, means that the 'frictionless' option has been set aside. This policy choice of Theresa May's government will result in various unavoidable frictions on the Irish border.
Prior to the referendum, several prominent Leave campaigners in the Tory party, even Nigel Farage of UKIP, assured voters that Britain would stay in the single market after Brexit. The customs union was barely mentioned. Departing both arrangements means tariff and non-tariff barriers as well as obstacles to free movement.
It was open to Theresa May's government to stay in the single market, and stay allied to the customs union, while leaving the EU, thus complying with the referendum verdict. The choice to do neither was a capitulation to the Brexiteer wing of the Tory party and is not consistent with the retention of an open border in Ireland.
Documents released during the week in London, dealing with the customs union and the Irish border, have done nothing to square the circle. They have obfuscated rather than clarified the choices on offer and reflect unresolved divisions within the Conservative Party which have been latent since the referendum in June last year. The decision to activate Article 50 at the end of March, the irrevocable trigger for exit, was taken before these divisions had been resolved, a decision which set the clock ticking to Britain's disadvantage.
Last Tuesday's customs union paper followed a curious article in The Sunday Telegraph penned jointly by the chancellor Philip Hammond, who campaigned for Remain and is viewed as committed to damage limitation, and trade secretary Liam Fox, an out-and-out Brexiteer. The article reiterated the hard Brexit couplet of exit from both single market and customs union, a surprise coming from Hammond. But the paper offered two customs union scenarios, one an unconvincing spiel largely about electronic process management, the alternative a Turkey-style arrangement with Britain accepting many of the current customs union constraints.
Turkey is not a full member of the customs union (confined to EU members) but has a close relationship, including zero tariffs on non-food EU trade and similar tariffs on its trade outside Europe. But the Turkey arrangement has not gone smoothly and there are customs hold-ups at the borders with the EU.
A Turkey-style deal is not a template for a hassle-free Irish border. In any event it was offered only as an option and the EU will be reluctant to begin negotiations for some months yet, until the withdrawal parameters have been progressed.