Skip to main content

Turns out the deal on the Irish border... resolved nothing

I have had this tab open, meaning to write a post about Theresa May and the Tory Brexit ultras, since the second week of December when the government and the European Commission signed off a 'stage one' agreement on preliminary issues, notably including the Irish border. You will just have to believe me that my planned post would have contained some predictions that are now coming true: the PM seemed to get away with that December agreement because the most ardent Leavers in her party didn't understand it, a stroke of luck that was never going to be very durable.

There was plenty of sound and fury about how much money the UK will pay to the EU during and after the transition, and some performative nonsense about citizens' rights, but the real nub of the preliminary negotiations was the Irish issue. That's because avoiding massive disruption to people in the north and south of Ireland requires seamless trade, of the sort that the UK currently has with the EU but most of Brexit's champions don't want in the future. How to create seamless trade with one, but not the other, countries in a borderless free trade bloc? That was the question.

The supposed answer was written into the EU-UK joint report in December, mostly in paragraph 49, which commits to avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic either through the overall EU-UK trading relationship, or through "specific solutions to address the unique circumstances". That could mean some sensible things. You could avoid a border by keeping the UK in the customs union, officially or merely de facto. But in paragraph 45 the UK commits to not doing this. (The memo the Commission wrote about the joint report notes, you have to imagine passively-aggressively, that the stated aim of avoiding a border through the overall relationship "seems hard to reconcile with the United Kingdom's communicated decision to leave the internal market and the Customs Union.")

What about 'specific solutions', then? This is a phrase that can mean two things. One is a regulatory approach which places the UK-EU customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, instead of on the island of Ireland. But we always knew this was not on the table as long as the arch-unionist DUP is propping up the government, and paragraph 50 ("ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom") confirms that. The other meaning of 'specific solutions' is techno-fantasy: a blockchain border, or a world-first approach of enforcing customs rules internally (on businesses) instead of at the frontier. These things are not going to happen, if only because Ireland won't agree to a ludicrously complex border system even if it turns out to be possible.

In the process the government made three commitments:

  • To the EU and the Irish government, that the border issue would be resolved to their satisfaction - which rules out the crypto-border-babble
  • To the DUP in Northern Ireland, that there won't be NI-GB regulatory barriers - which rules out moving the hard border to the Irish Sea
  • To leave the Customs Union - which rules out simply not having a hard trade border anywhere
You cannot, of course, make all these commitments, and that was the trilemma the government faced before December 8. The innovation of the preliminary agreement was simply to write down that they were going to solve this, somehow or other, and move on. If this seemed promising at the time, it was only because two of those three commitments were actual undertakings to other parties in the negotiation whereas the third was just something the government kept saying. So it was widely assumed that when push came to shove, the government would sign up for extensive regulatory alignment with the EU - Customs Union membership in all but name - because that is what the logic of the situation obviously demands.

There was a reason, though, that the government didn't say this was the plan: Brexiteers don't like the idea of close regulatory alignment one bit. Last week Jacob Rees-Mogg, who now heads the main bloc of Eurosceptic Tories, gave a speech against it. It's hard to pick a sentence to illustrate the point, because there's one in every paragraph, but the very first is as good as any: "'Close alignment' means de facto the Single Market, it would make the UK a rule taker like Norway, divested of even the limited influence we currently have."

So it's a no from him, and the roughly sixty other MPs in the European Research Group. The last few days have seen louder and louder noises from that wing of the Conservative Party, and chatter about a move against May is steadily growing. Meanwhile the Evening Standard has reported that pro-Remain figures in the government also want to flex their muscles and start pushing for a Brexit deal based on close alignment.

The title for this post when I started it in December was 'Delaying the Irish reckoning'. The delay seems to have already stretched as far as it can. And although the Irish border issue makes the contradictions particularly acute, in some respects the reckoning is more general: there is no Brexit path the prime minister can plot that won't set a large chunk of her party into wailing destruction. She achieved not-quite-two-months of relative calm by signing off on an agreement that literally promised all things to all people and waiting until the less attentive parties - that is, the Leavers - figured out what was going on. But now we're here.