Theresa May was horrified by the idea of a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. “No United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree to it,” she said. No sovereign state, least of all one that still claimed world power status, could allow a part of its territory to be severed from it and governed, even if only on matters of trade, by someone else.
Two years later, though, a UK prime minister did exactly that. He agreed to a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. He then sold it to the electorate as ”a great new deal that is ready to go” and enthusiastically recommended it to parliament, which duly voted it into law. A matter of months later, the flaws in the plan and its inherent threat to the unity of the UK have become clear. What Theresa May saw immediately, Boris Johnson has only belatedly acknowledged.
The UK leaving the EU meant that there would have to be a customs border somewhere between the UK and Ireland, either on land, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or in the sea, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Once the UK was outside the single market and customs union, there would have to be import/export paperwork, border formalities and checks somewhere between the two.
Trade experts explained this soon after the Brexit vote. There was no way for the UK to leave the Single Market and Customs Union and avoid a trade border. David Cameron’s aide, Matthew O’Toole, saw this coming before the referendum but his warnings fell on deaf ears. The government was always going to be faced with the Brexit trilemma. It could pick two but it couldn’t have all three. Something had to give and in the end it was circle number 3, so we ended up with Option A.
The Brexit Trilemma
The EU made it clear early on that it would not sanction any agreement with the UK that recreated a land border of any sort in Ireland. Once it had committed to that line, there were only three ways there could be a Brexit arrangement that applied to the whole UK. Either the UK stayed in the single market and a customs union with the EU, the BRINO or EU Minus option, it stayed in a customs union and had a single market arrangement for goods only, the Jersey Option suggested by Sam Lowe and John Springford in 2018, or it left altogether with no deal with the EU on anything, a relationship similar to that of Venezuela.
It is, with a little imagination, possible to envisage a way in which the government might just have pulled off an all-UK clean-break Brexit. It would have needed some clear guiding principles and a well thought out strategy to match. It would have required a long lead time to build up the infrastructure and staffing necessary to cope with a No Deal trading relationship and to prepare UK organisations for the level of change. A declaration of intent in 2016 to leave the EU at the end of the budget period on 31 December 2020, or possibly even later, would have given a breathing space in which to prepare. Above all, the government would have had to level with the public about what was to come.
There would have been an outcry. The Northern Ireland peace process was very much an international effort and there would have been widespread disapproval of anything that threatened it. Even so, the UK government could have constructed a reasonable argument to say that the Good Friday Agreement is over 20 years old and was concluded in very different circumstances. It would be unconscionable for such a treaty to prevent a sovereign nation from leaving a trading bloc when its people had expressed their wish to do so through a democratic vote. There would have been complaints about the UK breaching a treaty but the government could have put forward a moral case for doing so. It would not have convinced everyone but it would have been good enough for many.
This, though, would have required a government with strategic capability, moral principles and candour. It would have required planning, preparation and honesty about trade offs, with the UK public and with international partners. Unfortunately, this government lacks all these qualities and capabilities.
Instead, it signed a deal handing over part of its territory to the partial jurisdiction of an external power, while trying to pretend it hadn’t and telling its voters that everything would be pretty much the same. When the reality of what it had agreed became clear, it then pretended that the bill it had signed into law a matter of months earlier was a terrible idea and introduced legislation to renege on the deal. Therefore, instead of making a reasoned case for repudiating a treaty the country signed more than twenty years ago it is now making a hasty case for repudiating one it signed little more than twenty weeks ago. Instead of possibly being found guilty of breaking international law, it is now such a dead cert that the government has already admitted it in parliament. While some in the international community might have seen the UK’s point of view if it had made a reasoned argument for an all-UK Brexit and taken the time to make its case diplomatically with allies and trading partners, doing it this way makes us look ridiculous and offends even this country’s closest friends.
Peter Foster reported in the Financial Times on an unpublished civil service document, which warned the government some of the ways in which the Withdrawal Agreement would affect Northern Ireland.
Under the Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed to enable Brexit without creating a hard border on the island of Ireland, the UK agreed the region would follow EU state aid law for any matter that affected goods trade.
However, civil servants warned ministers in the January briefing document that Article 10 of the Northern Irish protocol that covered state aid could give the EU power over state aid to UK companies operating outside Northern Ireland.
A decision to subsidise British companies servicing Northern Ireland clients might fall within the scope of the agreement, or granting aid to any company in Great Britain exporting to Northern Ireland or with a subsidiary in the region.
Kit Malthouse was on BBC Breakfast earlier today warning that exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland could become illegal when the Northern Ireland Protocol is implemented. He’s right, at least in theory. If UK food standards were to diverge significantly from the EU’s, some exports might be banned. Were that to happen, though, UK exporters would also be locked out of the entire EU so they would have a lot more to worry about than not being able to sell to Northern Ireland. It’s an unlikely scenario. Perhaps Mr Malthouse was only using it to illustrate a point of principle. The trouble is, his prime minister conceded that principle at the end of last year.
The implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol were always clear. The EU even published a set of slides to explain it. In Part VI, the fact that Northern Ireland will still be governed by EU legislation on product requirements, agricultural production and state aid is spelt out.
It also sates that:
Northern Ireland can be included in the territorial scope of the UK’s independent trade policy, provided that this does not prejudice the application of the Protocol.
It’s glaringly obvious what takes precedence here.
The Withdrawal Agreement makes Northern Ireland, in many ways, a separate country. It is a partial surrender of sovereignty over part of the UK’s territory. Even the DUP, surely the stupidest political party in any European legislature, spotted this in the end. Late in the day, it finally dawned on them that the project they have been getting excited about for years isn’t going to include them. The rest of the UK is quitting the EU but their bit is being left behind. As Tom McTague said, the price of Brexit is Northern Ireland.
There is now no way out of this which doesn’t involve all the problems we would have had from a properly planned No Deal exit, together with the complete shredding of our international reputation and the probability that no-one will take this country seriously again. Even as he insists that songs celebrating the old empire are sung at the Albert Hall, Boris Johnson has set England on a course to where it was before the empire began: a peripheral European country walking a delicate line between stronger world powers. He accuses the EU trying to break up the UK. The truth is that Boris Johnson has already done that. His agreement and the treaty that he promoted have cleaved the UK into separate jurisdictions. His attempt to backtrack on the deal may further threaten the UK’s unity. If the country is becoming a rogue state, it adds weight to the arguments of those who want to leave it. Polls are already showing rising support for Scottish independence. ‘Let’s leave the ship before it sinks’ could be the sentiment that finally seals it.
Twelve years ago, the UK provided global leadership in the financial crisis. It may be a stretch to say, as some did, that Gordon Brown saved the world but the world came to London, at his invitation, to work out what to do next. Since then, first David Cameron, then Theresa May, have thrown away much of this country’s diplomatic capital. Boris Johnson is now hell-bent on destroying what is left. If he pushes ahead with his plan to renege on his own agreement even our closest friends will distance themselves from us. No one is going to listen when British politicians bang on about the Mother of Parliaments or the Rule of Law. Like the songs at the Last Night of the Proms, it will look like a façade from the past. Peel back the curtain and there is nothing there. We used to joke about the Perfidious Albion tag. It’s not funny any more.
Boris Johnson left Northern Ireland under EU jurisdiction so he could get the Withdrawal Agreement signed and claim he had got Brexit done. The details of the agreement were always clear and it was obvious that it would mean a trade border in the Irish Sea. His attempt to row back on the deal in a matter of weeks fools no one. He is destroying this country’s international reputation for the sake of a three-word slogan. That tells you all you need to know about his government.