Hey Presto. Three years ago, just after the referendum, the former Australian ambassador to China and to the World Trade Organisation, Geoff Raby, told us not to listen to EU negotiators until the last three weeks of any talks. Right on cue, 21 days before the deadline, a deal starts to emerge. After asserting for two years that bilateral negotiations were impossible within EU rules, the Irish Prime Minister has just conducted what to all the world looks like bilateral talks.
After a week of bellicose rhetoric from both sides, Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar sat down together in the romantic settings of Thornton Manor, Wirral, for some unexpectedly speedy kissing and making up. Details of the reported breakthrough remain murky even by Brexit standards, but it looks like the PM has offered an ingenuous solution to the Irish impasse under which EU tariffs would be payable on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. These tariffs could be reclaimed if the goods stay in Northern Ireland rather than travelling on into the Republic and hence the EU. Goods would also be checkable at the NI North Sea border for conformity with EU regulations. In practice, few consignments would actually be checked, and it is unclear whether there would be any outgoing checks from NI to GB for goods in transit from the Irish Republic.
We should remember that this proposal is part of a wider Withdrawal Agreement (i.e. Theresa May’s WA without the backstop) and hence there would be a transition period until the end of 2020 or perhaps 2022 in which the whole UK remains within the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market. As a result, there would be no changes for Northern Ireland at least until January 2021. The idea would be that a free-trade agreement would be negotiated during the transition period and if this is done then there should be no tariffs and few regulatory checks to be done at any UK–EU border including that in Northern Ireland.
This is a stretch for the DUP and the latest indication is that it may reject the proposal. The calculation perhaps was that the DUP might have been willing to take a risk, hoping that a future FTA will ensure that there will eventually be few checks and no tariffs at the Irish sea border. With the likelihood that there will be some opportunity for the Northern Irish Assembly (or public opinion more widely in NI) to ratify these proposals the Government is hoping that this enough. It appears, however, that there will not be a veto for the DUP (or Sinn Fein) despite such cross-community consent being an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement for any cross-border arrangements.
We will soon find out whether the Varadkar–Johnson love-in can be developed into something more solid in time for the EU summit at the end of the week. This is the last chance for hopes that Britain will leave the EU with a deal on 31 October. If talks stall again, we are back into the polarised territory of No Deal or another Brexit delay. For the Commission, the Johnson government and anti-no dealers in the Tory party, an innovative compromise would be a great political relief. There is reason for optimism, but in the rush to the finish line, the UK needs to stay on its guard and be careful not to concede too much. Indeed, for some Tories this may already be too much. It keeps the UK in the customs union and single market for up to three years, involves high payments and may include the Political Declaration with its defence entanglements. The pressure will be on the ERG and the DUP, so still touch and go.
On Wednesday BfB co-editor Graham Gudgin went to No. 11 to discuss the Treasury’s woeful record of estimating the impact of Brexit with Sajid Javid. It seems there will be no more Brexit reports from the Treasury under this Chancellor.
Graham also took part in Cross Question with Iain Dale on LBC radio earlier this week. A video is available on via catch-up on the LBC app. You can also watch the aggressive Al Jazeera interview of Richard Tice at the Oxford Union which went out worldwide last week. Graham was as ever the one leaver on a three-person panel brought in for further discussion and did what he could to defend the leave position.
Meanwhile, our other editor Robert Tombs has written an article for the Telegraph entitled ‘Misguided Remainers do not understand European history’, in which he unpicks a number of the myths underpinning Remainer arguments about European history. Brexit does not mean Britain will ‘leave Europe’, but rather build new relationships with Europe and the rest of the world:
“[W]hen all is said and done, is not the EU “the world’s largest market” and our biggest customer from which we are mad to consider separating ourselves? Perhaps we would be mad if that is what we intended, but the aim of Brexiteers has always been a free-trading relationship. Europe will remain important. Nevertheless, in modern economies, especially those based on services such as ours, geographical proximity is irrelevant.”
Those who subscribe to the Telegraph may also enjoy reading the excellent article by Vernon Bogdanor also published this week, ‘A second referendum is an affront to democracy. Remainers can only stop Brexit by winning an election’. Bogdanor is Professor of Government, King’s College, London, and argues (from a Remain perspective) that a second referendum would be deeply undemocratic and cause lasting damage to trust in British politics.
“I voted Remain in the referendum. But Brexit is now the default position, supported by the people, by the government and by MPs who, in 2017 passed the Notification of Withdrawal Act, authorising Theresa May to invoke Article 50 by a majority of 384 votes. The onus is now on those opposed to Brexit to convince the voters. They can do this only if they win a majority in a general election.”
Subscribers might also be interested in the upcoming Politeia event, ‘Seize the Moment! Setting the UK and its economy free after Brexit’. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, Politeia’s panel will take stock of the options for future UK-EU relations, and for the UK’s economy and trade. Participants in the discussion will include:
The Rt. Hon David Jones MP, European Scrutiny Committee; Minister of State, Department for Exiting the EU (2016-17)
Sir Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
Barnabas Reynolds, Partner, Shearman & Sterling LLP
David Collins, Professor of International Economic Law, City, University of London
Dr Sheila Lawlor, Director, Politeia
The event will take place on Tuesday 15th October 1.00pm – 2.00pm at St Ermin’s Hotel, 2 Caxton St, Westminster, London SW1H 0QW (preceded by a drinks reception). If you would like to attend, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, position, phone number and organisation so you can be added to the list. If you would like to bring a guest, please also include their name and contact details.
On the website this week
The Government’s new proposals meet the EU’s original aims better than the backstop, by Lord Trimble and Roderick Crawford
Lord Trimble is a former First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in securing the Belfast Agreement; Roderick Crawford is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief and works in conflict resolution. They note that the latest UK proposals for the Irish border do meet, in full, the original objectives set by the EU, and do a better job of negotiating the trade-offs required by the EU’s conflicting objectives than the current Backstop. But the objectives themselves are being altered by the EU, yet again.
“The European Commission currently views the backstop as the only proposal that meets the core criteria for Ireland/Northern Ireland. But there is a problem with its view of this: it is not true.”
Even more problems with the Benn Act… By Robert Harneis
Robert Harneis, a BfB contributor from Strasbourg, argues that the ambiguity in the Act may be a deliberate attempt to wriggle through our constitutional conventions and please two sets of lawyers and two legal requirements.
“Had the House of Lords done its job the issues discussed here would have emerged before the bill was passed.”
There’s nothing complex about the Irish Border by Graham Gudgin
For those who missed this interview on the excellent Spiked website this is a chance to catch up. The interview was conducted before the latest turn of events in the long saga of the Irish border.
DExEU: An Insider’s View, by Ben Knight
Ben Knight, who worked as a civil servant at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) between 2017 and 2019, shines a light onto the workings of that department under the May administration. DExEU’s young civil servants tried in good faith to carry out the tasks they were given but were continually hamstrung by government secrecy and dysfunctionality. This article was originally published by Brexit Central and is reproduced with kind permission.
“All in all, the abiding sense was that nobody quite knew exactly what we were supposed to be doing.”
The British MPs behaving like the Hong Kong Executive, by David Blake
Professor David Blake takes the view that those British MPs conspiring with the EU to block Brexit are behaving like the Hong Kong Executive. Both are acting to frustrate the democratic wishes of the people they represent.
“Even if [Remain MPs] are right and the British people will be “better off” in an undemocratic EU – just as many people in Hong Kong believe that they will be “better off” in an undemocratic China – what these MPs have done is act in precisely the same way as the Hong Kong executive and blocked the democratic consent of the British people.”
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An Oxbridge PhD Student
Dr Graham Gudgin
Economist, Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School University of Cambridge
Professor Robert Tombs
Emeritus Professor of French History, University of Cambridge