Vince Cable: Time to bring down the curtain on the Brexit pantomime
The mess around the Border exemplifies the hazards ahead. Yet Brexit can be stopped
A disused customs post in Co Armagh. The aims of avoiding a hard Border and Brexit (as sought by the UK government) are not compatible. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
When I enjoyed, as a British tourist, a wonderful summer holiday this year in Co Kerry and Co Clare, it was easy to forget the long and bitter history of Anglo-Irish relations, and the extent to which recent friendship has deepened within common membership of the EU. And in the North of the island of Ireland it is only the fragile structures of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which have kept at bay the violence which involved the British army in the largest campaign in its history.
These achievements are now at risk. Brexit will be destructive and damaging on many levels, not least for Britain itself. But one of the biggest dangers is the threat it poses to relations with Ireland. Even the bland diplomatic language of the December 8th Progress Report on the negotiations acknowledges Brexit’s “significant and unique challenge in relation to the island of Ireland”.
Economic links between Britain and the Republic are far stronger than is widely appreciated on both sides of the Irish Sea. When I paid an official visit to Ireland as secretary of state in 2013, one of my punchlines was that Britain then exported more to Ireland than to China, India and Russia combined. That has changed, but the Republic is still the fifth biggest customer for UK exports, and the UK is the second biggest market for Irish exports.
These trade figures understate the overall level of integration which is further deepened by major two-way investment flows.
Bucket of sand
The foolish, unnecessary decision of the British government to leave the single market and customs union – which was not mandated by the EU referendum – will throw a large bucket of sand in the wheels of commerce between our two countries.
As the countries drift apart, with growing divergence of regulation, customs levies and checks, businesses will look to trade less. We do not yet know the scale of the damage, but Britain is set on self-harm and Ireland will suffer collateral damage.
The particular area of sensitivity is the Border. If Britain leaves the customs union, for example, it could apply different tariffs to the Republic, and this would necessitate Border checks to ensure that goods from whichever country has the lower tariff are not smuggled in.
VAT rate divergence would have a similar effect. Or food subject to divergent health or packaging standards.
The possibilities are endless depending on how insistent the British are at “taking back control” of all the nationally-divergent regulations which have been carefully stitched together over 30 years since Mrs Thatcher first conceived and launched the single market.
There are obvious implications for the Border since there are 275 crossings, most of them minor, but all potentially a source of leakage and smuggling once the British and the EU (and Irish) economies diverge.
And, together with the 6,000 lorries which cross every day and potentially will have to be checked, there are 30,000 people making 110 million Border crossings a year for work, business, trade, education and family reasons.
There has long been freedom of movement under the 1922 Common Travel Agreement. Yet if the British insist on stopping backdoor immigration through Ireland, the Border will have to be manned and people checked.
It is obvious that the North-South co-operation built into the Good Friday Agreement would be difficult – indeed impossible – to sustain if there was to be a “hard” Border. That is why the UK has, rightly, been pressed to guarantee that there will be no hard Border. But how is it possible, logically and in practice, to avoid a hardening of the Border?
The honest answer is that the aims of avoiding a hard Border and Brexit (as sought by the UK government) are not compatible. The search for compatibility led to the confusing and demeaning farce of the last few days, whereby the British government first acceded to Irish and EU insistence that there should be no divergence between North and South; followed by the exercise of the Democratic Unionist Party veto; followed by an agreed Progress Report which appears to embrace two opposites.
This pantomime is unsatisfactory on several levels. A Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party which does not speak for the Remain majority in the North; which represents 1 per cent of the British electorate; which has demanded £1 billion to maintain its support of the Conservative minority government: it has a veto and has exercised its veto.
Articles 49 and 50 of the Progress Report are a dog’s breakfast of contradictory and ambiguous statements which has already generated much confusion and ill-will.
In particular, the Taoiseach has been embarrassed by the interpretation placed by the British government on one key sentence: “in the absence of agreed solutions (to the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland) the UK will maintain full alignment with these rules of the internal market and customs union which now or in the future support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protections of the 1998 Agreement”.
To most of us that sounds like a clear commitment for the UK to stay in the single market until the Irish Border issue is settled. The UK government and the Democratic Unionist Party are trying to imply that it means nothing more than an agreement to keep common agricultural policies and electricity supply arrangements. Dream on!
I am in Ireland to address members of Ibec. My message – and that of my party – is clear. Brexit is a disastrously bad idea. Britain should remain in the EU, and specifically the single market and customs union.
The mess being created around the Irish Border issue exemplifies the hazards ahead. But Brexit is not inevitable and can be stopped. That is why we call for a fresh vote on the Brexit deal (if there is one) with the option to choose an “exit from Brexit”.
Vince Cable is leader of the Liberal Democrats