Saturday 15 December 2018

Peter Foster: 'Deal is a dog's dinner - but it's the best thing on the menu'

Response: Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier delivers a statement in Brussels after Theresa May’s cabinet meeting. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Response: Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier delivers a statement in Brussels after Theresa May’s cabinet meeting. Photo: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Peter Foster

To anyone who has been paying attention over the past six months, the outlines of the Brexit divorce deal have been clear.

To avoid the return of a hard Border in Northern Ireland and keep avocados in the supermarkets and medicines on the shelves, the UK is going to remain in a "temporary" customs union with the EU that is likely to last for the foreseeable future.

Either that, or the UK will have to extend the status quo transition deal, but this is only a postponement of the same issue.

As John Springford at the Centre for European Reform has written, the choice is clear: remain in an all-UK customs union, or leave and accept the need for a customs border in the Irish Sea that leaves Northern Ireland in a different relationship to the EU.

These are the choices - and if Theresa May's team in Downing Street have an ounce of sense, they will be honest about this.

To have any hope of winning the national argument, Mrs May must break the habit of a political lifetime and be straight with the public - insisting, general election-style, that "nothing has changed" and that "no red lines" have been crossed will surely backfire.

Her arguments should be both positive and negative.

On the positive side, she needs to contest the idea that being in a customs union with the EU necessarily equates to "vassalage" or - as Jacob Rees-Mogg has now called it a "slave state" relationship with Europe. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU, but is it really a "slave-state"?

Depending on the proportion of EU single market legislation the UK has signed up to, there will still be elements of an independent trade policy.

She can argue that the UK will still be able to do bilateral deals on services, sign bilateral investment treaties, and secure public procurement agreements. At the same time, she can plausibly argue that a customs union is not "vassalage" it is just, well, trade.

The UK follows US rules and regulations when it exports into the US. The UK has limited choices but to follow them.

If Mrs May is honest, she will admit this deal is not perfect, that no one gets everything they want in an international negotiation and, given the Irish Border conundrum, this was frankly always going to be a bit of a dog's breakfast.

Which brings us to the 'negative' part of the equation - which is that in truth none of the contesting parties has a better idea. It is the biggest weakness that unites all the opposition arguments to her Withdrawal Agreement.

Hardline Brexiteers, like Boris Johnson, protest that there is a "much, much better way forward for this country" which involves getting "rid of the backstop" and doing "a SuperCanada free trade deal".

But the reality is that this deal is not on offer from the European Commission, it is a one-way ticket to a 'no-deal' which will create disruption on a politically unsustainable scale. Technology cannot create an invisible border, and nowhere in the world has it done so.

And what of the other options? 'Norway for Now' is a political pipedream. It fails to deliver control over borders and leaves the UK forced to accept ongoing free movement of people from the EU - the single biggest reason, polls shows, the UK voted for Brexit.

What about another general election? This is just another distraction that is highly unlikely to fundamentally change the parliamentary arithmetic, and will simply drag out the Brexit uncertainty that is already costing the UK billions in lost investment.

And the second referendum? That's the most ludicrous idea of all and really just a cover for the 'stop Brexit' machine. What question(s) would you ask? And what would you do with the answer? If Brexit has taught us one thing, it's surely that referendums are a recipe for bitterness and confusion, not clarity and confidence.

There never was a perfect Brexit. It is time Mrs May, however belatedly, owned up to this fact and put these hard choices in front of the electorate. She may fail yet, but spin and half-truths are a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

Irish Independent

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