The proposals the United Kingdom government is making for its future relationship with the European Union will run into a number of obstacles in coming days.
The harder the Brexit, the harder will be the resolution of the Irish border problem.
In a Joint Report of 8 December 2017, the United Kingdom (UK) agreed to respect Ireland’s place in the EU and that there would be no hard border in Ireland. This was to apply “in all circumstances, irrespective of any future agreement between the European Union (EU) and the UK”.
The further the UK negotiating demand goes from continued membership of the EU, the harder it will be for it to fulfill the commitments it has given on the Irish border in the Joint Report.
If the UK government had decided to leave the EU, but to stay in the Customs Union, the Irish border questions would have been minimized. But the government decided to reject that, because it hoped to be able to make better trade deals with non EU countries, than the ones it has as an EU member.
If the UK government had decided to leave the EU, but to join the European Economic Area (the Norway option),this would also have minimized the Irish border problems. The government rejected that because it would have meant continued free movement of people from the EU into the UK .
In each decision, maintaining its relations with Ireland was given a lower priority than the supposed benefits of trade agreements with faraway places, and being able to curb EU immigration.
The government got its priorities wrong.
Future trade agreements that may be made with countries outside the EU will be neither as immediate, nor as beneficial to the UK, as maintaining peace and good relations in the island of Ireland. The most they will do is replace the 70 or more trade agreements with non EU countries that the UK already has as an EU member and will lose when it leaves.
EU immigration to the UK, if it ever was a problem, is a purely temporary and finite one.
Already the economies of central European EU countries are picking up, and, as time goes by, there will be fewer and fewer people from those countries wanting to emigrate to the UK(or anywhere else) to find work. These countries have low birth rates and ageing populations, and thus a diminishing pool of potential emigrants.
Solving the supposed EU immigration “problem” is less important to the UK, in the long run, than peace and good relations in, and with, Ireland.
If, as is now suggested, the UK looks for a Canada or Ukraine style deal, the Irish border problem will be even worse. Mrs May has recognized this and this is why she rejects a Canada style deal..
A Canada style deal would mean the collection of heavy tariffs on food products, either on the Irish Sea, or on the Irish border. Collecting them on the long land border would be physically impracticable, so the only option would be to do it on the Irish Sea.
The all Ireland economy, to which the UK committed itself in the Joint Report, would be irrevocably damaged. The economic foundation of the Belfast Agreement would be destroyed.
It is time for the Conservative Party to return to being conservative, and conserve the peace it helped build in Ireland on the twin foundations of the Belfast Agreement and the EU Treaties. Conservative Party members might remember that, without John Major’s negotiation of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, there would have been no Belfast Agreement in 1998.
The proposals the UK government is making for its future relationship with the EU will run into a number of obstacles in coming days.
The first will be that of persuading the EU that the UK will stick to any deal it makes.
Two collectively responsible members of the UK Cabinet, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, have both suggested that the UK might agree to a Withdrawal Treaty on the basis of the Chequers formula, but later, once out to the EU, abandon it, and do whatever it liked. This would be negotiating with the EU in bad faith. Why should the EU make a permanent concession to the UK, if UK Cabinet members intend to treat the deal as temporary?
The second problem relates to the substance of the UK proposals.
They would require the EU to give control of its trade borders, and subcontract control to a non member, the UK. While the UK proposals envisage a common EU/UK rule book for the quality of goods circulating, via the UK, into the EU Single Market, the UK Parliament would still retain the option of not passing some of the relevant legislation to give effect to it. The UK would not be bound to accept the ECJ’s interpretation of what the common rules meant. Common interpretation of a common set of rules is what makes a common market, common.
Mrs May is not the only Prime Minister with domestic constraints. Creating a precedent of allowing the UK to opt into some bits of the EU Single Market, but not all, would create immediate demands for exceptions from other EU members, and from Switzerland and Norway (who pay large annual fees for entry to the EU Single market). It would play straight into the hands of populists in the European Parliament elections, which take place just two months after the date the UK itself chose as the end of its Article 50 negotiation period.
It does not require much political imagination to see that aspects of the UK proposal, if incorporated in a final UK/EU trade deal in a few years time, would be a hard sell in the parliaments of some of the 27 countries. We must remember that all that would be needed for the deal to fail, would be for just one of them to say NO.
Remember how difficult it was to get the Canada and Ukraine deals through.
John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.