Leo Varadkar’s optimism on Brexit may be wishful thinking

The hiccup in the talks this week is largely the product of an attempt by London to ‘park’ the frictionless border

David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister:  A European Commission paper suggested that it seems ‘essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided’. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images

David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister: A European Commission paper suggested that it seems ‘essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided’. Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images

 

When the UK published its paper on the Northern Ireland dimension of the Brexit talks in August it addressed the issue of the “agri-food border” on the island with a suggestion that it claimed “could ensure that there would be no requirement for any sanitary and phytosanitary or related checks for agri-food products at the border”. A big promise.

By ensuring continuing regulatory convergence on both sides of the Border, the paper argued, common standards could be maintained and there would be no need for customs controls.

“One option for achieving our objectives could be regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures, where the UK and the EU agree to achieve the same outcome and high standards, with scope for flexibility in relation to the method for achieving this,” the paper suggested .

“An agreement on regulatory equivalence for agri-food, including regulatory co-operation and dispute resolution mechanisms, would allow the UK and the EU to manage the process of ensuring ongoing equivalence in regulatory outcomes following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”

So it was somewhat surprising to hear of the hostile reaction by the UK negotiators to a broadly similar proposal enunciated this week in an internal commission document reporting to the member states on the “state of play” in the Northern strand of the talks.

‘Frictionless border’

Attempting to address how the UK might operationalise its aspiration for a post-Brexit “frictionless border” on the island, the commission paper suggested that “it consequently seems essential for the UK to commit to ensuring that a hard border on the island of Ireland is avoided, including by ensuring no emergence of regulatory divergence from those rules of the internal market and customs union which are (or may be in future) necessary for meaningful North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The commission and the Irish Government have made it clear that their preferred option for Brexit would be for the UK to remain part of the Customs Union and to abide by its rules. But if that is not going to happen, clearly the best option is to reinvent it by another name as the way of avoiding “regulatory divergence” and an inevitable regime of border checks.

The hiccup in the talks this week is largely the product of an attempt by London to “park” the frictionless border as an issue in the first-round talks with the argument that it involves “future relationship” issues which will only be addressed in phase two.

But as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made clear at the EU October summit just 10 days ago, that is not the position of either the Government or the European Commission. There remain substantial hurdles in the phase one talks, not least on the Irish border.

His optimistic prediction this week in the Dáil that “sufficient progress” in phase one will be achieved by December may be wishful thinking.

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