North must not be bullied by Europe on Brexit

NI is not a bargaining chip to force UK into staying in customs union and single market

Theresa May rightly rejected the EU’s proposal to separate Northern Ireland in customs terms from Great Britain declaring that “no UK prime minister could ever agree to it”. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Theresa May rightly rejected the EU’s proposal to separate Northern Ireland in customs terms from Great Britain declaring that “no UK prime minister could ever agree to it”. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

 

Another week, another manufactured crisis on the road to Brexit.

Those at Westminster who aim to reignite debate over the UK remaining in the EU customs union post-Brexit are again using Northern Ireland as a bargaining chip. Their aim is that the United Kingdom would have no choice but to remain in lock-step with Brussels for years to come.

The plan may well be to divide and conquer but the actual prize may be no deal at all and a hard Brexit. This is something the Irish Government should contemplate as it quietly falls in line with the European Commission’s position.

Recent comments from Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney that “there will be difficulties” if the backstop Border option – continuing North/South customs and regulatory alignment – is not legally translated by June are interpreted by the people I represent as an ultimatum.

Such threats are a barrier to progress. They hamper important trade talks which hold the key to removing a no-deal scenario from the table once and for all.

Only by addressing the Border issue in a fair and holistic fashion can we deliver a smooth and efficient relationship between the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the remaining EU economies

The only way to face down these ultimatums is for the UK negotiators to show their mettle and stand firm. Back in February, Theresa May rightly rejected the EU’s proposal to separate Northern Ireland in customs terms from Great Britain declaring that “no UK prime minister could ever agree to it”.

The prime minister was accurate in rejecting this draft legal text. Northern Ireland sells more in the British market than we do in the Republic of Ireland, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world put together. Great Britain is also the region from which we draw our greatest number of imports. There will be no internal barriers created within the UK post-Brexit and no amount of bully-boy tactics will change that.

Petulant vs productive

Since being rebuffed, the EU approach has been more petulant than productive. The UK must now come up with a solution to the Border, it claims, and not us. Hardly the flexible, imaginative or hands-on approach promised early on in the process.

Irish acquiescence to such high-wire tactics is odd given what is at stake, particularly for the Republic’s economy. The narrow focus in the talks on the land border with Northern Ireland does not cut it with Irish businesses reliant on wider agreement for access to their primary market. Two-thirds of Irish exports reach the continent via the UK land bridge and 39 per cent of Irish containers transit through Northern Ireland. Meanwhile an estimated 40 per cent of Irish food and drink finds a market in the UK and this figure rises to over 50 per cent for beef alone. Coveney must realise that playing hard-ball over this part of the text will not bring a soft-landing for Irish trade.

It is time to widen the debate, to focus on pragmatic and smart solutions with relevance to every UK border with the EU. Special treatment for a border sharing about 0.1 per cent of EU trade will not remove friction at major hubs like Dover, Holyhead, Calais and Rotterdam.

Finding an accommodation is in our mutual interest but it requires both sides putting their shoulders to the wheel, not just one

This is not to downplay our unique political and economic challenges. Only by addressing the Border issue in a fair and holistic fashion can we deliver a smooth and efficient relationship between the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the remaining EU economies.

Backstop plan

Ironically, even Brussels has admitted in recent days that its dangerous backstop plan is unworkable as it still leaves question marks over the integrity of the single market. It is clear that the best means of respecting both the UK single market and the European Single Market is a future relationship that treats all regions and all borders equally.

The best means of securing this wider solution is through an ambitious free trade agreement and new customs partnership. Progressing these talks should be the priority of both sides. Despite this, many people question why the Irish default position is to contemplate failure around every corner. Is this less about trade and more about using Northern Ireland to pressurise the UK into remaining in the customs union and the single market?

Yes, the three-tiered approach laid out in the December joint report sets the groundwork for eventual agreement, but fixating purely on the backstop not only lacks creativity but represents an act of bad faith toward the foremost commitments in options one and two. For our part, the Democratic Unionist Party is not willing to envisage a negative outcome from discussions on the overall relationship. Equally we will not countenance any fallback “alignment” approach that compromises Northern Ireland’s place in the union or damages our economy.

Ultimately, finding an accommodation is in our mutual interest but it requires both sides putting their shoulders to the wheel, not just one. It is time to drop the ultimatums. Only then can we move toward a Brexit deal that works for everyone, everywhere.

Diane Dodds is a DUP member of the European Parliament

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