Pressure may soon become irresistible for Theresa May to go against the habit of a lifetime and take a terrific political life or death gamble. Opening up beyond her bedraggled Facilitated Customs Arrangement unveiled at Chequers is Labour’s choice of a customs union – if not now, in the autumn. But this will mean a huge bustup and split in the Conservative party and require Labour support – official or unofficial – to pass.
In the meantime, the Tainaiste is reconciled to customs checks in Ireland Two academics writing in the Irish Times voice a view that has already been aired in Dublin – that the backstop is a problem all round, not the fundamental one of course, but a problem none the less.
We have always believed it would be better if Ireland were united under one sovereign Irish government. But in voting for the Belfast Agreement, Irish people, North and South, decided that, subject to the continuing consent of Northern Ireland’s voters, sovereignty over the northeastern six counties should remain with the UK, even if people in the North can opt for British and Irish citizenship.
If the EU27 do not change their position, and if they reject the UK’s latest ‘Chequers’ proposal, then the options are no Brexit or no deal. The first amounts to the EU making it impossible for the UK government to implement a democratic decision, an option that might seem unproblematic in Ireland but has incalculable political effects in Britain. If May does not buckle, then there will be no deal.
A Border poll in the North might resolve the sovereignty question, and we would welcome that. However, there appears to be limited political appetite for such a poll. It is therefore past time that the governments in London and Dublin faced up to their sovereign responsibilities. They should drop the backstop and work together to introduce a minimal land border, and to achieve a future UK-EU trade agreement that preserves the close links between the two countries.
Peter Ramsay teaches law at the London School of Economics and Chris Bickerton teaches politics at Cambridge University. They contribute to thefullbrexit.com
Alex Barker, the FT’s correspondent in Brussels, has penetrated Commission thinking to conclude that Theresa May must go further and accept a customs union as part of the permanent solution, not as part of transition which the EU has already turned down . What he doesn’t say is that this would split the Conservatives and require Labour support. But it shouldn’t disturb the DUP.
Apart from being emasculated in last night’s Commons vote, Mrs May’s Facilitated Customs Arrangement would never fly with the EU he says but as I’ve argued, why not treat it as basis of negotiation to develop than turn it down flat? .
Even the UK admits the unprecedented arrangement relies on non-existent technology. But that is only part of the challenge. Ultimately, Brussels sees the customs union as a binary choice, as defined under World Trade Organization rules.
More cynical British officials believe the EU is being too literal. To them, the FCA is not an imminent policy to agree, but a moon shot, which will take at least five to 10 years to implement. Crucially, the EU would always hold a veto over its actual introduction. Given that, they say, why not humour the idea? Its purpose, after all, is principally party management in Westminster. The FCA offers a glimpse of the sunlit Brexit uplands, helping Mrs May to cobble together a parliamentary majority uniting pragmatic Remainers and Brexiters. Without it, Britain has an invidious choice.
A clean break would trigger special arrangements to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland — the so-called backstop — with customs checks most likely across the Irish Sea. That’s a no-go for many Tory unionists, who refuse to divide the UK in such a way. Recommended David Allen Green One cheer for the Brexit white paper Brussels’ reluctance to entertain the FCA idea is more than just ideology, however. There are practical issues.
What would the EU tell Mexico or Australia in trade negotiations? That our European customs market includes the UK, but there’s a chance it might shrink, years from now, if the UK’s technology works. That hardly offers certainty. There is a negotiating point, too. Without clarity on customs, Mrs May’s proposal for a free trade area for goods — outlined in a recent white paper— collides head on with the EU’s negotiating red lines. The EU cannot be seen to explicitly divide the freedoms of the single market, separating goods from services, capital and labour. Nor can it countenance Britain enjoying frictionless trade with Europe while quitting its trade and customs system. Accept a customs union, on the other hand, and suddenly Britain falls into a ready-made EU category. Space to negotiate opens up, enough perhaps to even agree the free trade area for goods Mrs May envisages.
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