Predicting a post-Brexit future is as hard as ever
Fidget spinners – with their hypnotising whirling motion – are an apt metaphor
Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave European Union flags from the top deck of a bus parked outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Thursday. Photograph: Daniel Leal-OLivas/AFP/Getty Images
It seems nothing is out of bounds as people contemplate life after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. Even health risks from below-standard fidget spinners have figured in discussions around Brexit in Brussels.
Last year’s must-have toy came up recently in contacts between a Northern Irish delegation and the EU Commission’s taskforce that is leading negotiations with Britain to figure out the most orderly exit possible.
The toys provided a good example of the kind of customs checks and controls that the EU and UK are trying to grapple with as both sides plan for a post-Brexit world and how new borders, regulations and standards will apply.
An EU report last week found loose parts on cheap fidget spinners from China were causing serious injuries to children. The EU’s rapid alert system for dangerous goods blocked their entry into Europe.
“Consequently, dangerous fidget spinners have been tracked down, stopped at borders and ports, or destroyed,” the report said.
The weighted-pronged toys are apt metaphors, too, for where Brexit negotiations are right now. There is constant spinning and the hypnotising whirling motion creates the impression of dynamic movement.
Then the wheel stops.
The actual Brexit board-game that all sides are playing is squaring the circle: how can the UK government achieve the goals of leaving the EU’s customs union (the tariff-free zone) and single market (the common trading zone) and pursuing international trade deals, while avoiding a hard Border where the two territories meet in Ireland?
It is a game that, for now, appears to have no conclusion. That is making more people nervous with just a year until the UK formally exits the EU, particularly when London has been so roiled by internal Tory party politics.
Life after Brexit will, day to day for now, be judged on the colours on the working draft of the eight-page Irish protocol.
That sits within the EU’s overall withdrawal agreement – the draft treaty that will cover the rules of the UK’s departure from the 28-nation political and economic bloc. The large tracts of text marked in either yellow or white in the protocol show the areas where agreement still has to be reached.
Predicting a post-Brexit future for Ireland will be as hard to predict as it has been during the 21 months since the Brexit referendum. All eyes will be on the protocol in the run-up to the October deadline when both sides hope to have a final deal on the withdrawal and whether agreement is reached, turning those tracts turn green.
“There still are an enormous number of areas on which there are no agreement as of now. I would presume that there would be an agreement but as to the shape of the agreement, it is hard to assume,” said Daithí Ó Ceallaigh, a former Irish ambassador in London.
“It is complicated by the politics in Britain. There are people who are getting very uneasy about the future of Britain. I still think we are in very unchartered waters.”
Negotiations are moving on to the future permanent trading relationship between the EU and the UK now that the post-Brexit transition period up to the end of 2020 has been agreed to avoid a “cliff-edge” Brexit.
A deal has been done on London’s financial settlement, on the divorce bill to be paid to Brussels and rights of citizens in each other’s jurisdiction. The Border is the giant elephant in the Brexit negotiating room.
A political, if not legal, agreement to avoid a hard Border means that the fallback, or “backstop” position for Northern Ireland – maintaining “a common regulatory area” on the island, north and south, in the event that no wider deal on Brexit be agreed – provides an insurance policy for the Government.
But, without details to keep the Border invisible, the issue is pushed forward to be dealt with under an EU-UK trading agreement.
Ó Ceallaigh sees this as normal in the process of negotiations around major multi-lateral agreements, like the withdrawal agreement. Agreement is found in concentric circles, like the motion of the fidget spinner.
“The document as it is now has the backstop for the Irish. If that is to be changed, then it has to be something which will deliver a soft border. If it doesn’t emerge in the negotiations, the backstop is there,” he said.
Former Labour minister Ruairi Quinn, chairman of Dublin think tank the Institute of International and European Affairs, suggests that the Irish side should not labour the point about the Border as detailed designs won’t take concrete shape until there is “final shape” around the future permanent relationship between the EU and UK.
“If we keep going on about it, it will look as if we are really very nervous about it,” he said. “The north-south axis is one axis of importance but the east-west axis between the Republic of Ireland economy and that of the rest of Britain, excluding Northern Ireland, is infinitely more important in sheer volume and diversity of sales and product and all sorts of things.”
Quinn reflects positively on Ireland’s achievements in the Brexit negotiations so far. The “first half of a two-year engagement plus the transition after that” has been a “very good start” from an Irish perspective, he says.
“We have a lot to be satisfied, nothing to be taken for granted, nothing presumed,” he said.
The strong feeling in Brussels is that Britain will ultimately have to agree to a close post-Brexit alignment with the EU that is as good as being in the customs union or whatever London wishes to call it to sell it politically.
Eamon Gilmore, former tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs, and now EU Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia, believes there is “probably” a parliamentary majority for Britain remaining in the customs union now that the position is supported by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and anti-Brexit Tories.
Gilmore believes that the transition agreement up to 2020 provides scope for a further political shift in London and towards a softer Brexit.
“The political map may well be changed by then, so that transition period might turn out to be more significant than just a transition to get paperwork and agreements in line. It could also be significant politically,” he said.
Others in Brussels see Corbyn’s speech late last month pushing for a new “bespoke” customs union with the EU that was embraced by British business as marking a change towards an improved tone in UK politics towards Brexit.
One senior EU figure even sees the shift towards a softer Brexit at Westminster as allowing British prime minister Theresa May to the use “the parliamentary process as a battering ram” against the hard Brexiteers.
A softer Brexit – remaining in or close to the customs union – would certainly scratch off many North-South trading issues that threaten to economic devastation along the Border. But regulations, particularly on veterinary and sanitary, and phytosanitary to protect against disease, would need to be aligned too to guarantee a level playing field.
Further risks to Ireland in a post-Brexit world would arise from any opt-ins into the single market the UK would win. May’s address at the Mansion House at the start of this month – the first really substantive speech setting out London’s goals for a post-Brexit trading agreement – set out some key cherries the UK wants to pick: financial services, aviation, pharmaceuticals and medicines, and an a-la-carte approach to the European Court of Justice.
As Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel has succinctly observed of Britain’s relationship with the European Union: “Before they were in with a lot of opt-outs, now they are out with a lot of opt-ins.”
The EU has rejected May’s cherry-picking approach; European Council president Donald Tusk has said that a “pick-and-mix approach” by a non-member state was “out of the question” in order to protect the integrity of the single market.
This is critical for Ireland if it is to maintain a competitive advantage over the UK and is guiding Irish negotiators in Brussels on their strategy on talks around the future EU-UK trade deal.
It is effectively a push-pull strategy: hug the British tight so they are as close as possible to the single market or push them far away so they can take none of the benefits from it, all in the name of maintaining Irish competitiveness.
On trade, when it comes to the customs union, it is in the interest of both countries to remain as close as possible.
On services and investment, it is more complicated. A British cake-and-eat-it approach would create a powerful economic competitor next to Ireland. If that were to happen, it would allow London cherry-picked access to the single market on pharmaceutical and financial services, while being free from the EU rules on state aid, tax and standards. This would give London a major advantage over Dublin.
So, when the EU insists in Brexit negotiations that the integrity of the single market must be maintained, it can be seen as Ireland stressing that in no way can there be a compromise on the economic advantage globally that comes from being part of an internal market of 500 million people.
“The single market works for everyone in the EU. It doesn’t help anyone for an economy the size of the UK to become a competitor on your doorstep,” said an EU source in Brussels.
“The Italians have their cheese, the Germans their cars and the Irish their investment base. Everyone has something to protect. No one can agree to give them a competitive edge.”
Heading into the second half of article 50 negotiations leading to the UK’s departure from the EU a year from now, Ruairi Quinn urges Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to continue his charm offensive around European capitals so that his “concentrated, targeted engagement” can translate into country votes on the final Brexit treaty.
“We need to make sure we explain to them that we were Europeans before we were British. Not to be schmaltzy about it, but we can point to the whole missionary period from 500AD, look at the Christianity in what is now Germany and central Europe; we can make that sing to people who don’t know our history,” he said.
“We need to make it clear that we are not a bit of Britain that fell away or that we might want to possibly leave when they leave.”
Former taoiseach John Bruton is less upbeat about the post-Brexit future. He fears the return of English nationalism and identity politics in the UK will mean that the phenomenon of “England blaming the European Union for all sorts of things” will continue “long after Brexit” and particularly if Britain climbs down and gives up some of its red lines in an agreement with the EU.
“It is going to be potentially very bad, not just the trade relationship but also the psychological relationship,” he said. Contentious relations with the EU are “bound to spill over” into the relationship between Ireland and Britain.
“That means that those conditions where the two governments could come together and act as godparents to the Good Friday will no longer exist because the relations will have deteriorated,” he said.
It would be in Ireland’s interest to work towards the possibility that the UK parliament “could assert itself” to encourage Britain to change its mind and stay in the EU, he said.
“That seems at the moment next to impossible but it is not impossible completely,” he says. Failing that, the Irish should plan for much longer-term problems, well beyond the formal Brexit a year from now, and a very different relationship with the UK.
“If we get into a situation where the UK and the EU are at loggerheads, this is going to be very difficult,” he said.
“We have go to look at this in a prospective 30 or 40 years. It is not just 30 or 40 months.”