Damage limitation rather than Brexit blame game should be the priority now
If Theresa May really does want to avoid lorry checks at the Irish border, Dover et al, it is high time she ended the complacency, writes Colm McCarthy
For the last two weeks, the UK government's bandwidth has been absorbed fully in the spat with Russia over the poisoning of two people in Salisbury. But the meeting this Thursday and Friday of the European Council, as soon as Theresa May has departed, must decide on rather more consequential matters: whether to adopt the Commission's draft of the withdrawal agreement and how to respond to the UK's request for a transition period post-Brexit. The UK has offered no alternative draft but has raised various objections to the Commission's proposals.
The Commission's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has warned that the offer of a transition period is conditional on settling the withdrawal terms, supposedly agreed in outline last December. Council president Donald Tusk has highlighted the primacy of agreement on keeping the Irish border open. No substantive negotiations appear to have taken place in recent weeks and the parties are still in conflict on the Irish border question. The UK side continues to place its faith in unspecified technological solutions, even though it intends that the UK, including Northern Ireland, will be outside both the customs union and the single market.
Last Friday the cross-party House of Commons committee on Northern Ireland offered the following conclusion on the feasibility of the UK's preferred, but yet-to-be-revealed, solution:
"The UK government has repeatedly underlined that the free movement of people across the border will not be affected, and that no physical infrastructure will be put in place. However, the committee was unable to identify any border solution currently in operation across the globe that would enable physical infrastructure to be avoided when rules and tariffs diverge."
If there is a hard border in Ireland, there will be hard borders also at Calais and Zeebrugge. The previous evening, the Brexiteer cabinet minister Chris Grayling offered the following assurance on the BBC's Question Time programme: "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover. We will not impose checks at the port, it is utterly unrealistic to do so. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in the future."
Trouble is, the UK does not check lorries now because the UK is a member of the EU's internal market, and departs on March 29, next year. Mr Grayling, who must have been briefed about lorries since he is the transport minister, appears to believe that the post-Brexit arrangements are a matter for unilateral decision by the UK. Resignation from the EU with all of Mrs May's red lines (goodbye to the customs union and single market) entails no change in Mr Grayling's version of the real world.
Aside from the avoidance of instant chaos at the Channel ports and the Irish border, the transition period is designed to provide the space and time for the negotiation of the UK's long-term trading relationship with the EU-27, fated by geography to be the UK's most important market. Not even the broad parameters of this relationship have been agreed.
The EU leaders may well choose to call time this week on this persistent complacency in the UK about the conduct of the Brexit talks. The UK ceases to be a member of the Union just over a year from now. This is an inescapable consequence of the British resignation letter, delivered with uncomprehending aplomb under the terms of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty on March 29, 2017.
In the absence of a withdrawal agreement which includes a post-Brexit transition deal, the UK becomes a third country on the second anniversary next year, joining every economy from Argentina to Zaire in that category. Without a transition agreement there will be no legal basis for the continuation of trade and travel between the UK and Europe - not just queues at Dover but no more flights. Without a solution to the Irish border question among other unresolved matters, there will, according to Messrs Barnier and Tusk, be no transition period and a crash-out Brexit.
The British print and broadcast media has contributed hugely to the foot-dragging in government policy. From much of the coverage, one could be forgiven for believing that the UK had been unfairly and surprisingly expelled from the EU against its wishes. Viewed from Brussels, the UK delivered a self-implementing resignation letter with a two-year fuse. This, after all, is what the treaty provides. The lack of preparedness on the UK side has been evident since before the June 2016 referendum but the EU has had no choice other than to proceed as if dealing with a coherent counterparty.
In hindsight, the decision to report "adequate progress" in the negotiations after last December's fudge has further fed British complacency and it might have been better to provoke a crisis at that point.
There has been no better illustration of the media's insouciance than the coverage last week of an opinion poll designed to elicit the electorate's allocation of blame for the impasse in the talks. A sample of 'more than 2,000' was asked the following question: 'Do you agree the EU is trying to bully the UK in the Brexit negotiations?' The Sunday Telegraph commissioned the poll and presumably framed the question. Of those surveyed, 67pc agreed that the EU was indeed playing the bully and the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express are due a substantial share of responsibility for the state of public opinion. The narrative of British victimhood at the hands of Johnny Foreigner, aka the 'Brussels dictatorship', has been peddled assiduously by these newspapers for decades. The broadcast media including the BBC has done little to redress the balance.
One could be forgiven for believing that the Brexiteer press would welcome a chaotic crash-out next March and the blame game that would ensue, establishing once and for all the perfidy of Europe and a retrospective justification for Brexit.
For the political leadership in London there is still, just about, enough time to eschew the blame game and limit the damage.