Today the government has released its second Brexit position paper, this time focusing on the Irelands. It follows from yesterday’s position paper about customs arrangements which had given a brief nod to the land border in Ireland and promised more info today. Sadly, while the government has devoted a whole paper to the situation, it does little to put flesh on the bones of how these fantasies might come to be reality.
The government seems to think it can spin a consensus out of thin air and points to how the EU has been demanding an early resolution to the Ireland debate and how the UK government’s new paper proves the two negotiating teams are in alignment.
“There is significant overlap in the objectives set out by the UK Government, the Irish Government and the EU” the author declares happily before hailing 4 impossible objectives: avoiding a hard border, maintaining a Common Travel Area, sticking to the Good Friday Agreement, and keeping the Single Electricity Market at its most efficient.
A problem here is that the EU presents these as major challenges and the UK seems to think that by agreeing these are tricky hurdles that need to be solved, there is somehow an agreement that the EU needs to change its long-standing negotiation position. On the contrary, these are the UK’s problems to solve – the UK is the one that wants to upset the apple cart without bruising any apples.
In relation to the Good Friday Agreement, the paper has an admission about the value of the EU for the peace process:
“The EU’s unwavering support for the peace process has been valuable in furthering political progress and reconciliation”
It points to the fact that the EU has provided money and regional support programs that have helped, alongside regular public statements of support from several high-level EU committees. Indeed, it has been the EU that has forced the UK to face the Ireland situation before any other, whereas the Brexit government has looked a bit lackadaisical and surprised to realise their plans could pose a problem.
The practical suggestion put forward by the UK is that the EU would continue to provide billions in funds through the PEACE program. It should do this because all Northern Irish citizens are also (if they want to be) Irish citizens and therefore EU citizens. And there is not so subtle intimation that to withdraw that funding would be to damage the Good Friday Agreement: bad EU, bad.
Presumably the alternative would be for the UK government to accept more responsibility for compensating regions negatively impacted by Brexit. When Cornwall asked for financial help, the Brexit government said they’d get no extra money and would have to compete for it against more affluent places like London, Bristol and Birmingham so there seems little hope for Northern Ireland. Besides, the UK has blown its budget for donations to Northern Ireland since giving the DUP over £1bn to keep Theresa May in power.
In fairness, the DUP needed the money because after being given over £400,000 by a shady, secretive international body, they blew it all on the Brexit campaign.
Common Travel Area
The paper describes how the UK government really likes Freedom of Movement and for EU citizens to make use of our public services (and vice versa) when it’s only between Britain and Ireland. During the EU referendum, Brexit leaders regularly declared the undoubted disaster for our public services when 76 million Turks would inevitably join the EU but apparently there is no such concern about 4 million Irish emigrating overnight from the Republic.
The reason might be that the UK wants to avoid a hard border with guards and checkpoints and so on, widely considered to be damaging to the peace process, so Freedom of Movement would be a real bonus.
In this position paper the UK government says it wants to have Free Movement between the Republic of Ireland and the EU, and between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the mainland UK. It sees no problem with this and with the UK completely removing itself from Free Movement with the EU. This beggars belief.
Free Movement of Goods: no hard border #2
The same rules apply for the free movement of goods. The UK absolutely wants to keep this going because it’s good for everyone and they definitely don’t want a hard border with checkpoints and invasive searches and guards with guns and so on.
Once again, the UK government looks forward to ‘unprecedented’ solutions and makes use of the EU’s phrase “flexible and imaginative” – strong echoes of the cross-your-fingers rhetoric from yesterday’s position paper.
For this objective they propose that the UK would remain a part of the EU’s Common Transit Convention. This is heavily aligned with the rules of the Customs Union, something the UK is adamant about leaving but it could improve transit to some degree and it is used for transit of goods to so-called third countries like Turkey.
That said, the border with Turkey was recently reported as being an example for the UK not to follow – with massive bureaucracy and long traffic jams at customs check points. And Turkey is IN the Customs Union as well as the Transit Agreement. As one Turkish transport representative said, “The customs union means free movement of our goods…It doesn’t mean free movement of our trucks.”
With Brexit leaders like Jacob Rees Mogg calling for the UK to accept wildly variant standards in trade goods from its new global trading partners, it can only be expected that deregulated Brexit Britain will face even tougher border issues than Turkey.
What is clear from the position paper is that the UK is hoping these problems will all be on the Republic of Ireland’s side of the border (hence our graphic at the top of this article). The onus is to be on the EU to deal with borders on their side so that there won’t have to be any bordered within Ireland or between the Irelands and the UK. This could be translated as: we’re going to break it, you’ve got to fix it.
Single Energy Market
Britain sells gas to Ireland and there is innovative North-South exchange of energy between the Republic and the North. All of this occurs under the framework of the Single Energy Market. The UK is very keen to keep this going, as is everyone else.
The UK’s major selling point here is that Ireland isn’t connected to any other energy market – it’s a hostage to the UK’s gas.
This hasn’t escaped the notice of the EU however and for months now, there has been increasing investment in a link between the Republic of Ireland and Brittany – the Celtic Interconnector. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush but with Brexit transition deals potentially extending into the 2020s and the Celtic connection intended to be finished by 2025, the UK supply on energy might not be so important.
It is to be hoped that an agreement can be made on energy regardless because smart grids and widespread, international sharing of energy based on environmental sources (windy Ireland, sunny Spain) is surely useful for combatting climate change and the move away from fossil fuels. But with the UK unwilling to accept the rulings of the ECJ and being consistently told it can’t cherry pick bits of the Union, it’s hard to predict whether it will be the EU or the UK that puts some sort of tariff or spanner in the works.
If anything, this document is worse than yesterday’s in terms of wishful fancy. The UK government is setting out impossible desires that are inconsistent with their other Brexit positions (like ditching the Customs Union, leaving the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice and completely removing Freedom of Movement).
Their only hope here seems to be to ask the EU to continue giving money to Northern Ireland, for it to adopt a whole load of border issues between the Republic and mainland EU in order to avoid a hard border anywhere else and to use the emotional blackmail that the EU would be causing problems to the Good Friday Agreement if it refuses to be so ‘flexible and imaginative’ as to bend over backwards.
All the paper does is set up a narrative that the UK is ‘trying’ and the EU is the bad guy that’s going to ruin everyone’s day – something sure to be picked up by the Daily Mail and Express in due course.