Brexit: What is it that you want?

Expressions of frustration, implied from the Taoiseach but stated by business representatives, at the failure of the UK to articulate what it wants

British Prime Minister Theresa May was yesterday given a timely and perhaps embarrassing reminder by her Indian hosts of the inter-connectedness of free movement and free trade. Back home she may champion the idea that free access to markets should not be tied to free movement of labour but on her visit to New Delhi, hoping to open up the huge Indian markets to UK companies, Ms May was forced to promise that she would ease visa procedures for the country's professional and business classes. "There is no such thing as selective free trade," observed one of the speakers at the India-UK Tech Summit she was attending.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in his speech to The Irish Times Brexit Summit in Dublin yesterday, also made passing reference to the critical importance of free movement to the EU single market, a hint perhaps that Dublin does not now see a clear road to what has been called the "soft" Brexit we would prefer. That would involve continued participation in the single market with its corollary of an open door to internal EU migration. In recent weeks British ministers have toughened their language opposing free movement.

The Dublin meeting saw expressions of frustration, implied from the Taoiseach but stated by business representatives, at the failure of the UK to articulate what it wants in Brexit and at the uncertainty that feeds into the markets and business. But, as our London Editor Denis Staunton argued, all the political indicators, the internal Tory Party dynamics and the logic of the process now point to the "hard" road.

All we can do now is plan for all eventualities, department by department, economic sector by sector, and business by business, to ensure that the right questions are asked when the British position is made explicit. That work of asking questions is well underway, as both Mr Kenny and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire made clear in their speeches.


Mr Kenny also reiterated the Government’s commitment to a “soft border” with the North and the Northern Secretary insisted that his government is singing off the same hymn sheet. “The open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, along with the Common Travel Area, has served our peoples well ... And both our respective governments, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, are determined to keep it as open as possible.” Yet such welcome unanimity is no guarantee it will happen. In the end, it is the European Council which will decide what form of policing the Union’s external border will require.

While he declined to say if the British government would seek a special deal for the North, Mr Brokenshire said it was “obviously very conscious of our commitments under the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements which we certainly are not going to unsettle”. Time will tell.