Cliff Taylor: British Brexit plan is more Blackadder than Machiavelli
Britain will use Border as level to try to progress talks on post-Brexit trade deals
Britain’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis and European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
The Irish Border is now a British bargaining chip in the Brexit talks. Britain is using the political desire to avoid a “hard Border” on the island to try to advance its own interests. London hopes that the need to avoid a so-called “hard Border” will help it to win an attractive new trade deal with the EU. Ireland risks being left caught in the middle when, as now appears inevitable, the talks start to turn nasty.
Theresa May’s soundbite is that she does no want to return to the “borders of the past.” It is a clever phrase, leaving open the option of some lesser Border. The real test of the British government’s commitment to solving this will come in the months ahead – and it has already failed the first exam.
If avoiding the return of the Border was really the number one priority, then Britain would stay in the EU customs union. But it makes very clear in its documents this week that it will leave the customs union and the single market when it departs from the EU in March 2019.
The logic of this is that a Border would be needed at the only land frontier between the UK and the EU – in Ireland – to control the movement of goods. In claiming this week that there are ways to avoid this, or at worst to have some kind of “frictionless” frontier, Britain is using the Border as a lever to try to get its own way.
Give us what we want, they are saying to Europe, or the Irish Border is coming back. If it all goes wrong, the nasty Brussels bureaucrats will be blamed for not signing up to London’s strategy. The trouble is that the plan, as now outlined, is shot through with holes – and Brussels will not sign up to it.
If there is a cunning British plan in the background here it is being particularly well concealed. Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis said “creative ambiguity” was needed during a negotiation and that London could not show all its hand. But this looks more like Blackadder than Machiavelli.
London must know that the rest of the EU will not allow it to simultaneously leave the EU, retain the benefits of free trade within Europe and also be able to negotiate new trade deals with other countries such as the US, Latin American and Asian countries and so on.
In political terms this is firmly in the cake-possession-and-eating department. In economic terms, the key problem is that Britain wants to trade freely and without barriers with the EU, while at the same time striking its own trade deals with other countries.
But how, without borders and checks, do you stop whatever goods the UK imports from outside the EU under new deals from moving through Ireland into the EU market? How do you make sure the proper tariffs, quotas and, crucially in areas like food, standards, are applied? London made some proposals here, saying for example it could apply EU rules, regulations and tariffs on goods entering the UK and intended for the EU market. But it sounds like a recipe for confusion.
The alternative, says London, is to accept that there will be new customs borders, but make them as “frictionless” as possible. But here you run into the same problems of controlling the movement of goods coming from other countries. And in Ireland, with two neighbouring regimes applying different rules and tariffs and no Border checks, the old days of a few gallons of diesel being smuggled across unapproved roads would look quaint when compared with the likelihood of a new era of much more serious criminality.
New trading arrangements
Britain will also use the Border card to try to progress the talks to discussing new post-Brexit trading arrangements as quickly as possible. At the moment the EU says “sufficient progress” must be made on three issues before the talks turn to post-Brexit trade – these are mutual citizens’ right, Britain’s exit bill and specific “Irish” issues.
Britain will argue that the Border issue – in so far as it relates to the movement of goods – cannot be progressed until there is more clarify on new trading arrangements. And it will use this to try to push its agenda of getting talks on trade started as soon as possible. The earliest this could be given the green light is at an EU Summit in October, though there is talk that the go ahead may not come until the subsequent December summit, particularly given the German election.
The Government here will welcome the statements this week that London wants to avoid the return of the Border. But it will quietly despair at the lack of detail, 14 months on, about how this might be done. And it will be well aware of the danger of the Irish Border argument being used to advance the UK interest, and rightly ask, when it comes to the crunch, just where this ranks in London’s list of priorities.
Britain’s Border bluff will not be bought by Brussels. And it is not clear how this can be fixed, unless Britain – faced with the huge economic threat of a cliff-edge Brexit – relents significantly and agrees to soften its plans. We must hope it does. If it does not, then the Border is on the way back, either via some negotiated deal or a chaotic British exit if the talks collapse, which must be a real possibility. London and Brussels will blame each other. But the blunt fact here is that the Irish Border is not the number one priority for either of them.