Get ready for the Big Bang on April Fool’s Day 2019
It is very difficult to ignore all the political noise and spin, but that is exactly what we need to do right now. We don’t know what the outcome of the Brexit talks will be, but decision-makers seldom have all the information they need. Like Donald Rumsfeldt, it is time to list our known unknowns and get on with it. The crunch meeting of the European Council takes place on 15/16th December. The EU Task Force has made it absolutely clear that firm proposals from London must be on the table by the end of this month if the EU27 are to be in a position to take a decision on moving to Phase II of the talks two weeks later. The current state of play looks like this:
- EU/UK Citizens’ rights: Positive noises from Brussels indicating that the two sides are close to agreement, but they are not there yet. There is always the potential that a European demand for a long-term role for the European Court of Justice could derail progress.
- Divorce Bill: The Financial Times is reporting that Brussels is responding positively to British proposals to pay up to £40 billion, but its sourcing looks a bit thin and rather Downing Street in tone. Other reports suggest Germany and France intend to take a tough line on the money; the Daily Express notes that they will have to stump up an extra £4.5 billion between them as a result of Britain leaving. There are no firm grounds for believing agreement is likely.
- Irish border: There has been no meeting of minds on this one, although there has been some noise reduction and we are all a little clearer about the harsh realities.
The fact is that our little border, which was largely ignored beyond our shores for the last 18 months, is now moving into the very heart of the whole Brexit process. The EU side laid out its stall in the late summer of 2016: the onus was on London to set out proposals for the border in the context of the peace process and the citizenship guarantees made by the British and Irish governments in the Good Friday Agreement.
London absolutely refused to set out any such thing. Instead, we were subjected to a long year of spin and mantras about hard, soft and frictionless borders, peppered with occasional glowing references to the technology deployed on the Swedish/Norwegian border (nobody ever mentioned that both countries are actually in the Single Market). But the harsh reality looks like this: if and when Britain and Northern Ireland leave the Customs Union there will automatically be a customs border running from Omeath on Carlingford Lough to Muff on Lough Foyle.
As recently as last week, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was repeating in Dublin that nobody wants a hard border. There is an absolute refusal to acknowledge that we are going to get one whether we want it or not if they leave the customs union.
The first line of defence, reiterated by Arlene Foster of the DUP this week, is that since they don’t want a hard border, if we get one then it is the EU that is at fault. The second and more subtle line is only just beginning to emerge: the border can only be addressed in the context of Phase II talks on the future trading relationship between the EU and the UK. In Dublin, Boris Johnson said it could be dealt with while they were discussing Dover/Calais.
On first reading, that proposition can seem almost reasonable, but look more closely. Trade talks can and should deal with the general economic nature of EU/UK borders, but our border has additional political dimensions that cannot be compared with Dover/Calais. That is why the EU ring-fenced it from the start.
The French, Germans and others fear that if the money is not settled before Phase II, every twist and turn of trade negotiations will be met with a British threat to cut their contribution. The fear of the Irish government is that the border will be used in exactly the same way. Brexit will hurt the British economy slowly, but tariffs on exports to England will have an immediate and massive impact on the Irish agri-food industry. Right now, we actually have a greater interest in a EU/UK trade deal than does Britain: we are a small customer for them while they are a huge customer for us. British negotiators make the point that if they crash out without a trade deal, the EU will get hurt too. Indeed it will, but we will take most of the pain.
It has to be remembered that nobody will win or lose votes in the English heartlands because of what they do in Ireland. They can afford to play hardball on the border issue. On the other hand, votes can and probably will be lost for settling the divorce bill. We are far, far beyond the point at which this can end well. London has set its alarm clock for 11PM on 31st March 2019. April Fool’s Day starts at midnight.