Many commentators on the Brexit negotiations, including Irish ones scarred by the diktat of the 2010 bailout and understandably opposed to the whole idea, talk as if the EU Commission’s stance is not only immutable but deserves the status of Holy Writ, while the British position is purely faction-ridden and pathetic.
The contrast is too stark.
There is no absolute logic to the EU’s making an adamantine sticking point out of of undefined “sufficient progress” on UK financial contributions, citizenship and the Irish border before moving on to trade. The British argue that they have made substantial if not necessarily final offers on citizenship, financial contributions and the continuing influence of the European Court of Justice. And if borders are to go up, if will not be the British who erect them. For myself I can’t see how the Irish border question can be settled until free trade is dealt with.
Today, Theresa May will probe the EU Commission’s position in her report to the Commons after her Florence speech. Even though I’m a Remainer and closer to Nick Clegg than anybody else, I believe the British government’s case needs headroom. Leaving aside troubled internal Tory politics, the case made by the ardent Brexiter Bernard Jenkin MP deserves space.
A soft customs frontier should be established from the day the UK leaves the EU. There is no need for zealous enforcement by the UK or by the EU of the “rules of origin” that govern the international trade in goods. There is no need for tariffs if the EU and the UK have jointly notified the World Trade Organisation of our intention to implement a zero-tariff comprehensive trade deal, and of our special customs agreement for the interim. If everyone was intent on being reasonable, the practical or legal problems would be surmountable. However, the EU is determined to be anything but. It refused to enter any discussions at all until the UK had invoked article 50. We did so, and still the EU refused to discuss the future trade relationship, insisting first on “sufficient progress” on citizenship, money and the Northern Ireland border.
If the political leaders refuse Mrs May’s appeal to move on to trade – or at least define what is meant by “sufficient progress” – the spectre is immediately raised of crashing out in a hard Brexit that all but the most ardent Leavers fear. This could even happen as soon as next month. It looks as if the bare knuckle politics of Brexit is about to begin. Danish support may not be decisive but may begin to create the flexibility the UK is looking for and we all need.
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