N.Ireland isn't being 'annexed' - Brexit chickens are coming home to roost

"If they do not like it, they should propose an alternative"
"If they do not like it, they should propose an alternative"
Ian Dunt By

Today will be full of hysterical gibberish from prominent Brexit supporters. They will insist that Brussels is trying to annex Northern Ireland, that a foreign power is now on the attack against the UK - intent on carving it up as some form of punishment for its decision to leave the EU.

It's rubbish. What we have seen today is the chickens coming home to roost for Brexiters. They have been warned over and over again during the last 18 months that it is not possible to leave the single market and customs union and still maintain an open border in Ireland. There is no solution to this problem. It is no more solveable than someone demanding you make a sports car with square wheels. It simply cannot be done.

Today, the bleak legal reality of that impossibility was made clear. The European Commission's draft text of the withdrawal treaty - basically the legal version of the political agreement signed in December - was published. It puts in clear, precise language what was previously fudged in the Irish section.

It states that "full regulatory alignement" entails - surprise! - a common regulatory area and a customs union. It's an opening position, but it's hard to see how it would ever be watered down much. It's not the EU position which would need the change, but the fundamental laws of trade.

The EU is doing several things here. Firstly, it is explaining how you would achieve the goal - expressed as a core mission of the Brexit talks by both the EU and UK - of keeping the border in Ireland open. Secondly, it is protecting the interests of one of its member states, the Republic of Ireland, which is having its economic stability threatened by the actions of a leaving state. And thirdly it is ensuring that it does not create an open trade flank on one of its land borders.

This is not just sensible, but mandatory. It would be absurd for Brussels to say that it is going to open a border without any control over what comes into it from outside. It would be tantamount to giving up any control over what comes into its territory. They'd no longer be able to pass laws on chemical standards or food or manufacturing or anything else, without having them instantly undermined.

The EU could ban a chemical in children's toys and a country would simply ship those goods to Northern Ireland and get them into the EU that way. The EU could decide against a trade deal with a country, only to see it ship its goods to Northern Ireland and get into their markets tariff-free anyway.

It makes no sense. No political entity or country would ever do this and it is foolish of the Brexiters to suggest they should, given they have spent the last two years arguing passionately for Britain to supposedly 'take back control'. In the EU, borders are open because states share regulation, laws, courts and agencies. If you leave, the borders close. The only way to keep them open is to once again say you'll share those things. And that is what the EU effectively described today.

The prime minister today insisted that the proposal would enforce a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That is clearly going to be the Brexit attack line. But it is nonsense. It is May who is enforcing a hard border, by insisting we leave the single market and customs union. The British government must get something straight: Either you keep an open border in Ireland, or you leave the customs union and single market. You cannot have both.

If the Brexiters do not like it, they should propose an alternative. And yet they have utterly failed to do so. A position paper demanded that we chip every product coming into the UK and work out where it goes later, like some kind Kafkaesque cyberpunk sci-fi story. It was laughed at - literally - by trade negotiators. Since then we have had no ideas at all, apart from ever-more frenzied demands for "creative" or "technological" solutions.

The British government could have put out its own draft withdrawal treaty today. There's nothing stopping it. Instead, they retreat from talks, where they are hopelessly outmanouvred, and have lunches with supportiver columnists and editors, while the EU does the work which will then outmanoeuvre them again in the future. The British team has no plans, and can only complain when the other side produces plans of their own which they made inevitable by virtue of their own demands. 

And all of this is for what exactly? Because Downing Street refuses to stay in the customs union. And that is for what exactly? So Liam Fox can keep on going for jollies around the world. And that is for what exactly? So he might at some point in the future be able to sign a trade deal which his own officials and government both conclude would be of marginal benefit to the UK, if any at all. It is an absolute masterclass in moral and intellectual inadequacy. 

All the EU is doing is presenting the legal reality of the UK's own demands. The fact Brexiters consider this some kind of military attack says nothing about Brussels and everything about their own failings.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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