Hold on hard to Brexit facts

We set up BBB because poor coverage and commentary constantly got mixed up with wishful thinking, because journalists were just not interrogating the Brexit issues in full. Specifically, expressions of hope and intent and pure wishful thinking were reported as predictions or statements of fact. Things got better from about November but occasionally they slip back again, as they did this week.

Following Monday’s meeting between British Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Enda Kenny, an otherwise reputable TV station reported that May had ruled out a hard border. Firstly, there was no attempt to explain what hard and soft borders might be. But secondly, she had merely repeated once more that she didn’t want a hard border. As far as we can see, by now just about everybody has said the same thing. So does that mean a hard border is ruled out? Absolutely not. In life we get things we don’t want.

Theresa May cannot rule out a hard border, not when she has said the UK is leaving the single market and all but said it is leaving the customs union too. It is completely within the gift of London and Dublin to set up a soft ‘people’ border with no passport or ID checks, although it rather goes against the grain of what the whole referendum campaign was about. But the imposition of tariffs on goods coming into the EU – read Republic of Ireland – from non-EU state Britain would be totally within the competence of the EU Commission, and Ireland’s views would be taken into account along with 26 others. Now it may be tiresome for the TV station to have to work through all that, but anything less does a deep disservice to its viewers.

Enda Kenny was a bit complicit in all this with his talk of “seamless” and “frictionless” borders. These terms were mentioned several times by both him and May, and now we hear that NI Secretary of State James Brokenshire is using them as well. Irish Times columnist Miriam Lord somewhat uncharitably wrote that Kenny’s fascination with the terms may have something to do with his penchant for cycling long distances in tight lycra shorts, but her headline hit the spot: “Seamless … frictionless … meaningless.” There are no real facts here at all.

With tariffs, the border cannot be frictionless. Almost 54% of cross-border trade is in agri-food which attracts average tariffs of around 40% – that’s an awful lot of friction.

You don’t have to take our word for it. A man who should know is former head of the European Commission’s customs procedures, Michael Lux. He told the NI Affairs Committee in Westminster on Wednesday : “These are nice words, ‘a seamless flow of goods’…. But what does that mean? If Northern Ireland is not part of the EU customs territory, then there is a customs border.” When you can’t pin down a verifiable fact, a qualified opinion is the next best thing. But to be strictly fair, May could be half-right: Lux noted that Britain could choose not to impose customs controls on the border but that the Republic had no such option. So theoretically we might be half seamless.

On the other hand, here’s a real fact to hold on to. Speaking in the Commons in the debate on Article 50, Brexit Secretary Daid Davis said Britain guarantees “without any qualification” to retain the Common Travel Area with the Republic after it leaves the European Union. This is a first, a genuine piece of news – before Christmas it looked very qualified as there were fears Theresa May would use the CTA as a bargaining chip in discussions on the rights of UK citizens within the EU. It is doubly important because it is effectively impossible to separate the CTA from the Good Friday Agreement with its guarantees of Irish identity and citizenship. May’s statements in Dublin about protecting the Agreement suddenly look a little more credible.