Wednesday 22 May 2019

Delusions and dogma as UK blames the cliff it is jumping off

The Tories must face facts - Brexit will be a serious agreement, a poisonous fudge or no deal at all

THE DELUSIONAL PARTY CONFERENCE: Boris Johnson addressing adoring delegates at a Tory fringe meeting last week. Photo: Reuters
THE DELUSIONAL PARTY CONFERENCE: Boris Johnson addressing adoring delegates at a Tory fringe meeting last week. Photo: Reuters
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Jeremy Hunt "compares EU to USSR and accuses bloc of holding UK prisoner" headlined The Daily Telegraph last Monday, reporting the address to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham from the UK's foreign secretary.

The speeches from Mr Hunt, his predecessor Boris Johnson, UK prime minister Theresa May and her trade secretary Liam Fox at Birmingham reveal once again the delusional mindset that has gripped the Conservative Party since the referendum.

The British public has been fed a punishment narrative that hinders the withdrawal negotiations and threatens to poison relationships in the longer term between the EU and its soon-to-be ex-member. The UK has not been expelled from the European Union, it has signed itself out, a facility not available in prisons or in the USSR.

UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab (left) with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in the main auditorium where they watched Theresa May. Photo: Getty
UK Brexit secretary Dominic Raab (left) with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in the main auditorium where they watched Theresa May. Photo: Getty

In choosing to withdraw, as it was perfectly entitled to do, the UK deployed Article 50 in the EU Treaty and is in the process of negotiating its departure. This will occur on March 29 next by automatic operation of the law.

There are two important documents to be negotiated over the next few weeks. The first is the withdrawal agreement and the second an accompanying ''political declaration'' on the long-term relationship between the UK and the European Union.

There are three possible outcomes: a serious agreement or a fudge, both of which kick the can into the 21-month standstill period, or a no-deal crash-out less than six months from now.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May dancing to Abba before delivering her keynote speech
UK Prime Minister Theresa May dancing to Abba before delivering her keynote speech

Non-members of the European Union are not subjected to ''punishment'' from the bloc: they are just not members.

They can negotiate, and many have done so, preferential economic relationships, or they can operate under the World Trade Organisation's rules available to all.

What they cannot expect is continued borderless access to the European economies unless the EU seeks its own destruction as an integrated single market.

Reduced by the UK's choice to 27 members, the EU must - abiding by its treaties and the WTO rules - maintain external borders which distinguish members from third countries. This means that there must be an external EU border somewhere - in the English Channel presumably, but also between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

But where?

The UK government has maintained from the outset that it does not desire a hard border in Ireland - "no return to the borders of the past" in Mrs May's phrase. This requires a concession from the EU - namely, that the UK can define a portion of its territory as enjoying special status.

Note first that this is a concession from the EU, for which there are precedents, including precedents in the United Kingdom. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have special arrangements (including no free movement) and are thus not "as British as Finchley", as Margaret Thatcher's reassurance to Ulster's Unionists had it. The EU has conceded that Northern Ireland can also be afforded a status which places it inside the EU's external frontier for at least some purposes. There are numerous other examples - the Canary Islands are not part of the EU (or the Spanish) VAT regime, for example.

The Northern Ireland backstop, characterised by Brexiteers as a concession to Ireland, must appear to Continental EU members as a concession also to the United Kingdom to facilitate its declared commitment to the avoidance of a hard border. Northern Ireland, like the Canary Islands, is small enough to be given some special deal - but the UK as a whole is not, hence the backstop architecture in the withdrawal agreement.

RTE's Tony Connolly reported a week ago that: "The first point that the EU make," says a well-placed source, "is that this was designed specifically with Ireland in mind. It cannot be simply transposed like that. The risks to the single market would be way too high. We think they're manageable and containable when you're talking about Northern Ireland, but not for the whole of the UK."

Translation: if Germany sought a special deal for Bavaria, or the UK for London, they would be refused.

If the UK agrees the backstop granting indefinite special status to Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration becomes the sole remaining domicile for the fudge.

Mrs May ruled out again any enduring shackles to either the single market or the customs union for the UK as a whole, wherein lies a formula which would solve the backstop problem.

Brexiteers believe, contrary to virtually all expert opinion, that lost trade with the EU can be compensated with bounteous opportunities outside Europe. She noted that her recent visit to Kenya was the first by a British premier in 30 years.

Boris Johnson visited Peru when he was foreign secretary, and was the first holder of that office to do so in 52 years, he informed the Tory conference. Both discussed the trade possibilities with their neglected hosts.

Kenya and Peru have been ignored by trade-hunting British ministers for good reasons. They import very little from the UK.

Just for fun, the total in 2016 of UK merchandise exports to Ireland, which reached 55 times the Kenyan figure or 107 times the Peru number, can be distributed between the Republic's 26 counties in proportion to the published household income figures. If Kenya happened to be the 27th Irish county, its 2016 imports of goods from the UK would place it in 17th spot, between Kilkenny and Westmeath. Peru would come 25th, behind Longford and ahead of last-place Leitrim (population 32,044).

UK goods exports to the entirety of South America, Central America and the Caribbean in 2016 were one-third the figure for Ireland or half the figure for Belgium. Johnson visited Argentina and Chile as well as Peru: he would have encountered the same market for UK exporters had he made the shorter trip to Galway.

A full peregrination through every country in Latin America would have taken him a month, to touch base with markets for British exports contactable on a day-trip to Sweden.

Liam Fox, the man expected to negotiate the UK's post-Brexit trade bonanza, namechecked Canada, Mexico and South Korea on his list of most promising prospects. The EU already has free trade agreements with all three, to which the UK loses access six months hence.

The joint delusions, that the EU is punishing the UK and that lost trade in Europe can readily be compensated elsewhere, were ventilated remorselessly at Birmingham and point to either a poisonous fudge, storing up resentments and ill-will that could last for decades, or a no-deal outcome, concentrating the ructions into a shorter time-scale as the UK jumps off a cliff and blames the cliff.

This is Michel Barnier at the House of Commons last July: "Now if there is a no deal there is no more discussion. There is no more negotiation. It is over and each side will take its own unilateral contingency measures, and we will take them in such areas as aviation, but this does not mean mini-deals in the case of a no deal.

"We want a deal. We want an overall agreement; otherwise each will take their own contingency measures on their own side. That is why I want an agreement. I know full well, the worst scenario is indeed the no-deal scenario."

Sunday Independent

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