Hurtling at us like a comet but unnoticed by the local worthies is the prospect for repatriating powers direct from Brussels to Stormont, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay. Among them are powers over agriculture and energy, which in Ireland are linked or integrated north and south. How they’ll be divvied up is hasn’t even been examined. The British government retain a substantial interest in these areas where powers currently rest with Brussels as it negotiates new trading arrangements to replace membership of the single market.
A power grab by London will be bitterly resisted in Edinburgh whose request for special status has been rebuffed by Theresa May. The same ought to apply in Stormont if only anybody had the faintest idea about it. The complexities here are as yet unexamined but they’re certain to be very great – so great that they formed the centrepiece of Tony Blair’s call today to think again and ask for a new verdict on Brexit
The two great achievements of British diplomacy of the last decades in Europe, supported by Governments both Labour and Conservative, – namely the Single Market and European Enlargement – are now apparently the two things we most regret and want to rid ourselves of!
“The Single Market has been of enormous benefit to the UK bringing billions of pounds of wealth, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and major investment opportunities; our trade with an enlarged European Union has meant for example that trade with Poland has gone from £3bn in 2004 to £13.5bn in 2016.
“In addition to all this, the possibility of the break-up of the UK – narrowly avoided by the result of the Scottish referendum – is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case.
“We are already seeing the de-stabilising impact of negotiation over border arrangements on the Northern Ireland peace process.
How, therefore, can it be wise for us, during this epic period of global evolution, to be focused not on how we build partnerships, but how we dissolve the one to which we are bound by ties of geography, trade, shared values and common interest?
“This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe – calmly, patiently, winning the argument by the force of argument; but without fear and with the conviction we act in the true interests of Britain.”
In an article in le Figaro Theresa May makes the diametrically opposite case.
As we leave the EU, we will seek the greatest possible access to the European single market through a new, comprehensive, bold, ambitious free trade agreement,” she wrote.
“This cannot, however, mean retaining membership of the single market.
“President Hollande and other European leaders have been very clear that this would mean accepting the ‘four freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people and I respect their position.
Britain understands that EU leaders want to continue with the process of integration…We do not, to borrow the phrase, seek to cherry-pick which bits of membership we desire.”
Mrs May also highlighted French interest in a good Brexit deal, pointing out that the UK is France’s fifth-largest export market with bilateral trade worth more than €50bn last year.
“UK companies are responsible for an estimated 230,000 jobs in France, and French companies for about 370,000 jobs in the UK.”
Apart from delivering warm words that her anxious interlocutors receive as patronising little pats on the head, she has shown little interest in the entirely valid fears for the Brexit future in the nations and regions of the UK. Not a word of appeasement is contained in the uniform mantra delivered by her minsters flatly rejecting the special status which is code for continuing membership of the single market. No briefing on the issues discussed emerged from two Brexit joint ministerial council meetings. It’s as if they sat there, silent and obedient.
Mrs May is gambling on producing the same free trade result for the UK outside the EU as within it and ignores all the denials. She seems insensible to the threat to the very existence of the UK, as Tony Blair warns today, relying instead on calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff over a second indyref because of fears of the consequences of ending the single UK market. As for Ireland, she hands most of it over to the EU 27 to make an open border possible.
The best case for her position is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian For him Blair the former emperor has no clothes. Jenkins makes the appalling admission that Mrs May is putting party before country and that there is a case for a second referendum. But Blair’s not the one to make it.
Theresa May has followed a clearly political strategy. She has opted for hard Brexit, not because she may think it the best outcome but to cover her extreme anti-EU flank at the start. She has read the public mood, nobbled the Labour opposition, and held her negotiating team steady against a flailing EU leadership. She knows there is trouble ahead, but for now she does not want a split party.
Were Blair to warn May not to assume that hard Brexit is the public’s wish, he would have a point, if a banal one. It may well be that the eventual deal is so messy and controversial that another vote, by referendum or general election, would be wise. But the last vote is done. Former prime ministers should not campaign against the people.
Today the FT warns that Theresa May’s strategy on Brexit has triggered a fierce political backlash in some parts of the UK. Nowhere has resistance been more acute than in Scotland, where the implications of repatriating powers from Brussels could prove particularly complex.
in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, they will want funds from the UK Treasury that replicate the role played by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. They will therefore press for a new financial settlement with London that supports agriculture in their nations. The second issue will be the impact any new settlement has on London’s ability to sign trade deals with non-EU states. If the UK wants to sign bilateral trade pacts with, say, the US, Australia and New Zealand, those countries will almost certainly seek unencumbered access for their agricultural exports. But Mrs May’s government might find it hard to sign such deals if the devolved administrations are able to pursue radically different agriculture policies.
Concerns about the future of a substantially integrated agriculture and the energy market have been flagged up on both sides of the Irish border. But so far they have failed to make an impression on the tediously familiar election debate. What does the old verse say? “ so it’s to hell with the future and long live the past.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London