Sunday 22 September 2019

John Downing: 'The battle may be won, but the war will undoubtedly take even longer'


A pro-European Union, anti-Brexit demonstrator wears an EU flag beret outside the Houses of Parliament in central London. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A pro-European Union, anti-Brexit demonstrator wears an EU flag beret outside the Houses of Parliament in central London. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

A quick read of the document sketching potential EU-UK links after Brexit leads to one sinking conclusion: this issue will be with us for quite some time to come.

Barring the failure to resolve last-minute strops by Spain, France and others, the larger text - a 585-page, legally binding treaty - will be signed by all the EU leaders in Brussels on Sunday morning. This is essentially the divorce settlement fixing the terms of the UK's departure once Brexit happens on March 29 and after all subsequent transition grace periods expire.

The EU leaders are also expected to endorse a smaller document, originally running to 15 pages and now bulked out a little to 26. This is a general political declaration which is to inform the big-picture EU-UK talks on a post-Brexit relationship which is to include a major trade deal.

How long will that take? Depends who you ask. Some people point out it took seven years to do the recently concluded EU-Canada deal. Others say it could be done much quicker than that, given that negotiations would be about adapting a relationship going back almost 46 years. But the level of detail is mind-blowing.

Try this from the document opening stages: "This declaration establishes the parameters of an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership across trade and economic cooperation, law enforcement and criminal justice, foreign policy, security and defence and wider areas of co-operation."

Irish readers will of course go straight to the stuff that concerns us: the Border, and future trade with the UK which is likely to have an impact on jobs.

It has been clear that some form of customs procedures are inevitable - mainly between Ireland and Britain once the transition period ends either in December 2020 or some time later. But this document commits to "comprehensive arrangements" which ultimately "will create a free trade area, combining deep regulatory and customs co-operation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition".

This is of course yet another huge exercise in can-kicking down that road. The language speaks to British calls for open borders, and also the EU's ongoing insistence the UK cannot leave and then also claim the same trade access as before.

Then enter our now well-known buddy the "backstop" with a reminder that it is only an insurance policy for use in extremis. "The Parties recall their determination to replace the backstop solution..." it states.

And watch for a recurrence of talk about that old British claim that a revived Irish Border would be hardly noticed thanks to technology. This so-called "maximum facilitation" - or "max fac" in the jargon - hangs in for the future.

The document includes a reference to "facilitative arrangements and technologies" to be looked at to avoid a "hard border" between Ireland and Northern Ireland. From a Dublin point of view, this tells us that the battle is won - but the war will continue.

Irish Independent

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