by Frank Schnittger
Fri Aug 3rd, 2018 at 03:32:58 PM EST
Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney hold their press conference on the street after the British failed to provide a room following a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London last month. Photograph: Kirsty O'Connor/PA
One of the few things the UK government has done well is to summarise their position in a few pithy phrases even low information voters can understand. We are all familiar with the famous "Brexit means Brexit" catchphrase of Prime Minster May and Boris Johnson's famous "we can have our cake at eat it" which should really be "we can eat our cake and still have it"...
What Johnson means by this is that the UK will be able to carry on trading with the EU very much as before, taking all the benefits of access to the EU Single Market and all the Free Trade Agreements (FTA) the EU has negotiated with third parties without any of the costs and restrictions of EU membership. Apparently the EU would agree to this because "they need us more than we need them" and replicating EU FTAs would be a simple mater of replacing the letters "EU" with "UK" in all the FTAs the EU has negotiated to date.
The EU negotiating stance, on the other hand, has been one long slow process of disabusing the UK of such notions. Access to the Single Market will require agreement to "the four freedoms", and membership of the Customs Union will require compliance with the corpus of customs regulations the EU has built up over the years. The UK will not be allowed to achieve a competitive advantage by taking in cheaper, less regulated imports, or by reducing the scope of workers rights. And this is before we even talk about the UK making Norway style ongoing contributions to the EU budget in return for access to the Single Market.
As these realities have sunk in, debate in the UK has switched to negotiating a "Canada+++" style FTA which could include services and other elements not included in normal FTAs. "Just because this hasn't been done before shouldn't limit the scope of our ambition" according to Theresa May. The problem is that even standard FTAs tend to take many years to negotiate, and are subject to an EU requirement that they be ratified and approved unanimously by the EU Council, Commission, Parliament, 27 member Parliaments and some regional Parliaments. A big ask especially if EU/UK relations are not the best...
As a last resort the Brexiteers have been proclaiming their happiness to trade on just standard WTO terms in the event of a no deal Brexit - something they claim to be very relaxed about. They can point to the fact that the EU and UK have commenced the process of splitting their joint WTO trade schedules and making them available for consultation by other WTO members - where they too must achieve unanimous consent. Already 7 WTO members have voiced reservations.
But what ardent "No deal" Brexiteers may be forgetting is that "No Deal means no deal". The EU might halt the WTO schedule splitting process and not extend "Blue Skies" landing rights at EU airports to UK (non-EU) owned airlines. This doesn't require any active action "to punish Britain" on the part of the EU but is a simple consequence of the fact that only EU members are party to the agreement. The same applies to multiple EU agencies like Interpol, the Atomic Energy agency and the EU medicines agency currently decamping from London to Amsterdam.
Slowly, however, despite official attempts to suppress studies detailing the impact of a no deal Brexit on various economic sectors and everyday life, some details have been slipping through into public consciousness:
Keep calm and stockpile: An Irish parcel for Brexit Britain
The British government has revealed it is making plans to stockpile food and drugs in the event it crashes out of Brexit on March 29th without a deal, like a slightly chagrined drunk who ruins the party by throwing up over the sofa, and then slinks off home without a word.
It has been reported that the army and military helicopters may be called in to deliver food and supplies to far-flung parts of Britain (in this context, everywhere outside the southeast of England is “far-flung”). Generators could be flown home from Afghanistan in the event that electricity supplies between the Republic and Northern Ireland are cut off.
Prime minister Theresa May told people not to panic at the talk of stockpiling and blackouts – they should feel “comfort and reassurance”, she insisted. “It makes sense to put those things in place for no deal, because we’re in a negotiation,” she said. Quite right – who needs things such as water, fruit or lifesaving medicines when Britain is #takingcontrol?
Meanwhile, in better news, Jacob Rees-Mogg – the arch-Brexiteer who has just opened his second pension fund based in Ireland – said it will all be worth it… as quickly as around 50 years from now.
Over the weekend, as supermarkets warned that they won’t be responsible for stockpiling rations in the event of a no-deal Brexit, newspapers published advice for readers on how to put together a Brexit survival kit. “The imposition of tariffs and the likely collapse of sterling will mean that olive oil and wine will never again be as cheap. A middle-class way of life that began in the 1960s may be coming to an end,” wrote Ian Jack in the Guardian, suggesting people stock up on breakfast cereals, cat food, corned beef and HP sauce.
The Financial Times consoled its readers with the thought that advances in vacuum packaging means rationing can be a far jollier affair than it was in their grandparents’ day, urging them to fill their survival kits with “German wild boar salami … air-cured jamon from Spain and prosciutto from Italy … cheese from Franche-Comté or an Italian pecorino and Gorgonzola.” There’ll be no undignified racing around Aldi to buy up all the cat food and the Italian pecorino.
Perhaps the Gorgonzola vote will finally swing public sentiment away from Brexit...
The UK has been drawing up a "cherry picked" list of agencies and Treaties they do wish to remain members of, but there is no reason why the EU must agree to this in the absence of an overall Brexit deal, and particularly if the UK has defaulted on any Exit payments due. The UK fall-back position is to appeal over the heads of the Commission to national EU leaders stressing their long ties and proclaiming the need for "sensible arrangements" which are in both party's interests.
There may be certain things which are in the interests of two nation states, but it is not in the interests of the EU that any member or ex-member can be allowed to resile from previous commitments and yet maintain preferential access to the bits of the EU they still want to retain access to. This could be particularly difficult for a member state like Ireland which has a long land border with the UK and is most exposed to the damage a no deal Brexit will do to the most vulnerable parts of its economy.
Ireland exports a huge amount of agricultural produce to the UK which sustains employment in more rural parts of the country. Some companies have already closed because their tight margins were unable to cover the cost of Sterling devaluation. A further 20% devaluation post Brexit would kill off Irish agricultural exports entirely and make even domestic producers vulnerable to much cheaper UK imports.
Ireland is already suffering from hugely asymmetric development between the larger cities and more rural parts of the economy, and the migration of UK financial services jobs to Dublin will only exacerbate that situation. In addition the market for financial and IT jobs is pretty saturated at the moment while unemployment persists among manual, craft and technical workers, especially in more rural areas.
But it is the impact of a no deal Brexit on border regions and Northern Ireland that is of most concern. Ireland fought a bitter civil war in 1922/3 over the creation of that border and civil disorder has lingered intermittently in N. Ireland ever since. The British government has shown huge disrespect for the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement and seems hell bent on wrecking what little cross-community consensus has developed in the years since that agreement was signed.
There seems to be no prospect of the N. Ireland assembly and Executive being re-established following a disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein over DUP corruption scandals and the corrosive effects the prospect of Brexit is having on inter-community relations. There seems little point in trying to negotiate new deals when older ones are allowed to lapse into neglect and disrespect. One way or another Ireland will survive the economic impact of Brexit, no deal or otherwise, but the continued existence of N. Ireland has been called into question.
There will be no deal on anything until the UK starts respecting the Good Friday Agreement and the Back stop on the border they agreed to last December in order to move the talks on to the present phase. The next time British and Irish ministers meet, it may be the British Ministers who are left out in the cold (or in a heatwave, depending on the time of year).