Trust eroded by UK’s half-baked Brexit ideas for the Border

Who in Europe can trust UK when half its cabinet clearly doesn’t trust other half?

Trust is an overused but under-appreciated cliche. Few of us would get through our daily lives without trust. We trust that other road users will, for the most part, drive on the left, stop at red lights and, generally, not try to kill us. We trust our co-workers not to separate our wallets from the jackets hanging on the backs of our chairs. We trust that the water in the glass sitting on the restaurant table won’t poison us. In fact, it is quite remarkable that we rarely consider the trust we invest every time we put anything in our mouths. Other people’s good behaviour – aided and abetted by rules, laws and regulations – is a bigger part of the good life than is often appreciated. Life rapidly gets very complicated when trust breaks down.

Donald Trump is doing his best to destroy trust in the US. The most obvious example is his reneging on an international agreement with Iran, one with which all parties had previously complied. He now expects North Korea to sign up to a similar deal. Why would the North Koreans do this?

Long-term consequences

There are plenty of other ways in which norms are ignored and trust eroded. It’s all very well for Trump’s admirers to argue that these tactics seem to work: perhaps some of them do in the short term but it’s a dynamic game with smart players. There are going to be plenty of long-term consequences. Once trust has gone it becomes harder and harder to reach agreement about anything. Co-operative arrangements are difficult to achieve and maintain; conflict becomes more likely. The only practical way to treat an untrustworthy bully is to fight. We must hope that it is trust in Trump that has gone, not trust in the US.

International trade floats on a bedrock of trust. Rules and regulations have to be enforced and courts exist to arbitrate the worst disputes and settle occasional breaches of law. But most of the players know where they stand with each other. A new trading relationship has yet to be negotiated between the UK and the EU: whatever it ends up looking like, it seems unlikely that it will have much of a foundation of trust.


‘Trusted trader’ scheme

It is more than a little ironic that one of the many half-baked ideas floated to solve the conundrum of the Border is a “trusted trader” scheme. That word again. More generally, who is going to trust a country that is about to propose yet another “solution” to the Border question that flouts the spirit of last December’s agreement, is almost certainly illegal in EU law and is also a thinly disguised attempt to put one over on Brussels? All very ethical and trustworthy.

Britain's prime minister Theresa May apparently wants to use the backstop explicitly designed for Northern Ireland to be applied to the UK in a time-limited way. This permits an infrastructure-free border until it doesn't. And Europe is expected not to figure this out. As Trump would say, if you fall for this I have a bridge to sell you.

All of this comes about as a result of the UK government's persistence in pushing various fantastical schemes to achieve the clean break from the EU that 52 per cent of the electorate so obviously didn't vote for. A brick wall of logic exists merely to allow David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg to repeatedly hurl themselves against, rather than admit its existence. Citizens of Ireland, North and South, are slowly realising that a Trump-like wall along the Irish Border would cause English nationalists not a single moment of lost sleep. Another loss of trust.

Belfast Agreement

The UK can't have the desired clean break since that would involve dissolving – or maybe just reneging, a la Trump – on the Belfast Agreement. Northern Ireland simply cannot have a clean break with an EU that contains the Republic of Ireland. Neither can the UK. Maybe Britain can, but that's a can of untrustworthy worms.

The UK Brexit secretary was at the head of the charge of the technology brigade. The one that reckoned everything could be solved by camera-toting unicorns and fairies lined up along the Border. There are a number of problems that often befall anyone who makes things up as they go along. Most obviously, they will get found out. And then nobody ever takes them seriously again. Or trusts them.

Davis once said (in the Guardian nearly 10 years ago): "Faced with intractable problems with political pressure for a solution, the government reaches for a headline grabbing high-tech 'solution'. Rather than spend the resources, time and thought necessary to get a real answer, they naively grasp solutions that to the technologically illiterate ministers look like magic. And most ministers are very illiterate about any serious technology . . . so what we get is a form of magic . . ."

Of course, that wasn’t about the Irish Border. But many of us think it could have been.

Who in Europe is going to trust the UK government to keep any of its words which are so obviously half-baked and too often simply mendacious? When one half of the British cabinet clearly doesn’t trust the other. Perfidious Albion anyone?

Twitter: @skiduffer