Wednesday 12 December 2018

May's irrational fantasy is not as simple as A, B or C

A fourth speech by the British prime minister makes her position on Brexit no clearer, writes Colm McCarthy

UK prime minister Theresa May on Friday delivering her speech at the Mansion House in London on the UK's economic partnership with the EU after Brexit. Photo: Peter Nicholls
UK prime minister Theresa May on Friday delivering her speech at the Mansion House in London on the UK's economic partnership with the EU after Brexit. Photo: Peter Nicholls
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

Theresa May's peroration in London last Friday was her fourth major speech on Brexit since she assumed the office of prime minister in July 2016.

The first was at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham the following October, which set the strident tone for what followed at Lancaster House in January 2017. There she affirmed explicitly her government's hostility to the EU's single market and customs union, and she has never deviated since.

The UK seeks a long-term trading relationship with the EU-27 which is quite simply impossible. There can be no 'frictionless trade' or 'deep and special relationship' with the internal market outside its treaty-bound structures.

Last Friday's bromide included a new rendition of the same unattainable ambition, 'the broadest and deepest possible agreement, covering more sectors and cooperating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today'.

Michel Barnier's tweeted response was nicely understated.

'I welcome Theresa May's speech. Clarity about UK leaving Single Market and Customs Union & recognition of trade-offs will inform EU guidelines re: future Free Trade Agreement.'

Translation: 'Noted your omission of anything which would alter the draft guidelines we released on Wednesday. Noted also that you have ruled out anything other than a third-country free trade agreement, which will take forever.'

The UK government proceeds as if it is negotiating with a single foreign country called Europe, sovereign and free to cut deals. The European Union is not a country, it is a treaty organisation from which the UK has chosen to withdraw.

The separation can only be given effect in accordance with the treaty provisions. Patient explanations of this obvious constraint from EU negotiators have been ignored since the EU referendum and are still being ignored.

There can be no frictionless trade, across the Irish or any other European Union border, unless the UK agrees to a comprehensive customs arrangement and sticks with single market rules.

The single market is designed to be indivisible - there can be no offer of selective membership in bits of the single market.

In ruling out both customs union and single market, Mrs May is ruling out frictionless trade not just with Ireland but with all 27 EU countries. It is inconceivable that she still fails to understand this and the irritation of her EU interlocutors is no longer concealed.

The hiatus about the Irish Border is a manifestation of this broader misalignment of the UK's red lines (no customs union, no single market) with Mrs May's stated objective (frictionless trade).

Just as the red lines must produce a hard border in Ireland, so must they produce hard borders at Calais and Rotterdam. Only if the EU-27 were able to somehow ignore its treaty-based customs and trading rules could the UK as a third country enjoy the member-like access to European markets to which it appears to feel entitled.

That this irrational fantasy has survived as the fulcrum of British policy needs to be explained. Conveniently it facilitates a fall-back narrative that the failure of the policy, which is inevitable, is the fault of the EU negotiators. The Brexiteer press has been complaining that the EU is 'conspiring to block Brexit'.

The United Kingdom has resigned from the EU, effective in just over a year from now, a self-implementing consequence of the process triggered under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The EU could not block Brexit even if it wanted to.

The second explanation is that persevering with the fantasy permits the continuation of the referendum campaign, which was inconclusive in two respects.

The result was close: just 51.9pc voted to depart the EU. But the more important reason is that the Leave side won the referendum but did not win the argument. In particular, the British government has been unable to sustain the Leave contention that there would be no economic costs to the UK's departure nor the pretence that Brexit would be simple.

Mrs May's latest speech at last acknowledged that there will be some loss of trade access. The complexity of quitting is now obvious to all, while the overall economic costs to the UK have been confirmed in a leaked civil service study which the government refuses to release.

On the specific question of the Irish Border, Mrs May reiterated her faith in the avoidance of a hard border through undisclosed technological solutions, details to follow. This is Option B of the three in the draft withdrawal agreement. Experts in trade and customs matters do not believe that such a solution is workable.

She also ruled out Option C, a border in the Irish Sea, and Option A, a long-term deal which would avoid any borders between the UK and the EU-27 through adherence to the single market and customs union. Friday's speech means the two feasible options (A and C) have been ruled out by red lines, while Option B is ruled out by infeasibility.

The Taoiseach has understandably expressed his preference for Option A, which would avoid a land border in Ireland but also an economically more damaging east-west border in the Irish Sea.

On the avoidance of the latter at least he is in agreement with the DUP, who however seem to favour the inconsistent triplet of a hard Brexit with no borders north-south or east-west.

Mrs May, in the House of Commons last Wednesday, rejected the Commission's draft of Option C on the Irish Border because it threatened 'the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom', sentiments re-expressed last Friday.

The constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom has been rendered conditional by the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 which now form part of the constitutional order. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland have in effect been granted a right of secession and both voted Remain at the 2016 EU referendum.

The threat to the UK's territorial integrity could well turn out to be Brexit. Its constitutional integrity has already been qualified by the Belfast and Edinburgh agreements.

On a lighter note, the Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted last week that Northern Ireland is 'as much a part of the United Kingdom as Somerset', his constituency in the cider country of the English south-west. Mr Rees-Mogg affects an aristocratic style in speech and dress and he has his detractors. One described him as a 'Victorian wardrobe in a morning suit', another as 'every barmaid's idea of a gentleman'.

Last Thursday he accused former prime minister John Major, who had argued for Option A, of voicing "...the contempt of the European elite for democracy".

Rees-Mogg is a multimillionaire, the son of a peer and was educated at Eton and Oxford. Major grew up in working-class Brixton in south London and left school at 16.

That Rees-Mogg is regarded as a potential successor to Theresa May speaks volumes about the current condition of the storied Tory party, the oldest political party in the world, which Major led to a general election victory in 1992.

The kid-glove treatment afforded by the British mainstream media to Rees-Mogg and other items of political exotica from the Tory backbenches has sustained the unreality of the government's Brexit policy. The media is part of the problem.

Sunday Independent