This week, Theresa May’s new Minority Government released two position papers: one on the continuation of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; the second on the future customs arrangements between the U.K. and the European Union. These releases were meant to calm the accusations that the Cabinet – which has spent over four weeks fighting among themselves about the future transition arrangement after the Article 50 process ends – and the Department for Exiting the EU were inept, and was struggling to understand the complexities of the task at hand.
These papers aim to clarify the Government’s position on a number of key Brexit issues and its strategy for the months ahead. The issue is that the strategy of ‘Hard Brexit’ that the Government is pursuing is very different to the outcomes that these proposals aim to create. Leaving the Customs Union and the European Single Market might empower Liam Fox’s International Trade Department to make trade deals with non-EU states and for Amber Rudd’s Home Office to clamp down on European Freedom of Movement, but it complicates the issue of the Irish Border and our future trade with the European Union.
It has been known and warned about that leaving these institutions (the ESM and the CU) make a soft border between the two states of the island of Ireland almost impossible: trade cannot move between the European Union’s Customs Union and an outside State (the future U.K.) without undergoing customs checks at a border checkpoint. By intending on leaving the Customs Union, the U.K. Government has always risked the return of a hard border.
These position papers outline proposals to ensure trade remains free across the border, even with the U.K. – and thus Northern Ireland – outside of the Customs Union. The issue is that proposal is to essentially allow companies to traverse the border between the European Union’s CU and outside it freely with no checks, with 80% of trade being run by small business, according to the UK Government, needing minimal checks. Larger companies will have to operate a license to trade freely, but with the dedication to no physical checks – not even CCTV cameras on main roads – it is difficult to see how that will be policed.
On immigration, the UK Government has spoken of the need to ensure employment and labour laws do more to strengthen and deter immigrant labour, with the necessity to ensure free movement of both goods and people meaning that the Republic of Ireland will have to increase immigration checks there, but also that there will be an effective ‘back door’ of European Free Movement into Britain.
The premise of these proposals is that the U.K. Government is seeking a fudge. The Prime Minister knows that only a ‘Hard’ Brexit is acceptable to the British voters that keep her in No. 10 on a loose string after the election wiped away the Conservative majority, but she also knows the issues this will raise for Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Prime Minister is trying to engineer a ‘Hard’ Brexit that will help control immigration in England, Scotland and Wales, while ensuring that the effects of a ‘Soft Brexit’ or even full, continued EU membership are felt across the island of Ireland.
This fudge simply means there are numerous contradictions in May’s determinations for Brexit. The custom-less arrangement between the Republic and the North is unworkable without an extension of the Customs Union into Northern Ireland, and an alternative Customs Union would likely prevent the U.K. making free trade deals with other countries. Meanwhile, the arrangement will likely need the court jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice, something May has held as a red line for Brexit since October last year and unacceptable to the hard-line Brexiteers both in the Democratic Unionist Party and in the Conservative Party and others.
Proposals to create a system of ‘parallel regulatory regimes’ also undermines the ‘Hard Brexit’ mantra of May’s Government. Any agricultural policy in Northern Ireland will surely have to be mirrored across the U.K. to ensure the “integrity of the U.K. single market” that the UK Government has spoken about protecting from devolved interference from Edinburgh and Cardiff. This means, effectively, accepting all EU-level agriculture and climate change policies, among others, reducing the number of economic sectors we can use as leverage in establishing new trade deals post-Brexit – If we are aligned with the EU’s food standards, the USA will want little to do with us on a new deal basis.
This fudge of wanting the benefits of a ‘Hard Brexit’ on the British mainland and the necessity of a ‘soft’ border in Ireland, ultimately, means that there is now greater confusion of the aims of the British Government from Brexit. If we want the vision of ‘Global Britain’ that the Prime Minister outlined in her January Lancaster House speech, establishing a legal and future-proof borderless arrangement in Ireland will become a barrier to the full benefits May envisages, and the Government will surely have to admit that not everyone can, as is often said, ‘have-their-cake-and-eat-it’.