by Frank Schnittger
Thu Jan 31st, 2019 at 12:52:12 PM EST
FT: The EU cannot rescue Britain from Brexit chaos
May's government has shown it can no longer be counted as a trusted partner
I had intended to address a slightly sheepish plea to Britain's European partners. Even at this late hour, the EU27 should show forbearance with the Brexit shenanigans at Westminster. The prize of an amicable parting of the ways -- or, in the best case, a change of heart in a second referendum -- was worth it. My shaky resolve collapsed after Theresa May's latest swerve. The EU could now be forgiven for simply throwing Britain overboard.
The prime minister's embrace of her party's hardline Brexiters was breathtaking in its cynicism. Only weeks ago she was immovable about the arrangements in the EU withdrawal agreement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Now she promises to try to rewrite them to suit the prejudices of her party. What of the Belfast Agreement, the treaty underpinning peace on the island of Ireland? It ranks second, it seems, to appeasement of Brexiters such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The mandate the prime minister claims to have secured to rewrite the Irish "backstop" is worthless and incredible. Worthless because all the other options for the Irish border have been exhaustively explored, and discarded, during the Article 50 negotiations. Incredible because the hardliners who backed her this week do not want an agreement. Supporting Mrs May now was a diversion. The real strategy is to run down the clock all the way to a no-deal Brexit.
What must be doubly maddening for the EU negotiators is the assumption among so many Tory MPs that the Irish arrangements were designed permanently to lock Britain into a close trading relationship. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. Governments across the EU fear the backstop, were it ever to be implemented, would give Britain an unfair advantage -- unique access to the European market without any responsibilities. The EU27 would be as eager as any Brexiter to ensure such a regime was short-lived.
And therein lies the rub. Whilst the conclusion of a Withdrawal Agreement was a significant achievement by EU negotiators - not least because it kept the EU27 united - it also contained major concessions by the EU for which it has gotten zero credit. Norway pays a hefty price for Single Market access, not dissimilar, on a per capita basis to the UK's hated net contribution for full EU Membership. There has been no talk, to date, of the UK paying a similar price - which would also serve to undermine the basis for the Norwegian contribution.
So there is a case for the EU27 (if not Ireland) to regard a no deal Brexit with a sort of equanimity, even if only as a short term expedient to lower UK expectations and result in a retrospective acceptance of May's deal. But there has to be a considerable doubt that May's deal, or something very like it, will even be on offer after Brexit, especially if the no deal divorce has been nasty and accompanied by much Brexiteer triumphalism.
EU politicians have Parliaments they must answer to as well, and there are EP elections coming up. My guess is that if the UK doesn't accept May's deal in full very quickly after Brexit day then it will be withdrawn and far harsher terms of engagement will apply. The UK will have to join the queue of third parties looking for FTA's with the EU, and discussions won't even start until the 45 Billion have been paid upfront, the rights of EU citizens in the UK have been protected, and guarantees on the border have been honoured.
No deal Brexiteers want to avoid as much future "entanglement" with the EU as possible, to enable the UK to become "Global Britain" and be free to engage with the world on its own terms. They may find the rest of the world, no less than the EU, will not be overly enthusiastic about engaging with a UK that cannot be trusted to keep its word or deliver on its commitments.
The priority for the Irish government must now be to achieve an "understanding" with the Commission that they will tolerate an open border within Ireland in exchange for tight controls at Irish air and sea ports to prevent UK goods using Ireland as a backdoor into the EU. "Chlorinated chicken" and the smuggling of tariff free goods will then become an internal problem for Ireland to resolve - one that is doable because so much of UK/Ireland trade is through air and sea ports anyway, and so much of the rest of it is by a handful of major supermarket chains and agri-food producers and importers who can be policed on an on-site basis.
The EU is aware that Ireland will be most badly effected by a no deal Brexit. For much of the rest of the EU27 it isn't such a big deal. Some tolerance towards Ireland would be a small price to pay in return for continued EU27 solidarity and cohesion. Brexiteer dreams that German car-makers will quickly bring the EU27 to heel and result in more advantageous trade terms for the UK are just that - dreams. This could all get seriously nasty before it gets resolved, if ever.
Hardly anyone in the UK has any conception of how difficult this could get unless saner heads prevail. The EU was created to promote peace in Europe, but on its borders instability prevails - Ukraine, Kosovo, Macedonia, Turkey, Libya, and N. Africa more generally. We do not want N. Ireland to join that list. Even within the EU, democracy is threatened in Hungary and Poland and perhaps Romania and Bulgaria.
The EU has to be seen to protect and defend the interests of its member states, or else it too could disintegrate. If that has to be at the cost of non-members like the UK, then so be it. When trust breaks down it can be incredibly difficult to recover. Brexiteers like to talk about "our friends in Europe" as if their actions were without consequence. Their regard for the problems their alliance with the DUP is causing Ireland borders on contempt.
Britain First in its own headspace could well lead to Britain Last as far as the rest of Europe is concerned. The UK could be gaining the illusion that the World is only waiting to offer it more favourable trade terms than the EU at the loss of the best friends it ever had.