By Oliver Norgrove
When it comes to the issue of the Irish border, the key phrase in today's report on the conclusion of phase one talks is: "The United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union."
It is true that this does not bring finality to the Irish border problem, but this is not the point. Today was really about cementing a workable outline. Instead, the key is that there is enormous political will for a soft border and that the ball is now in the UK's court to propose constructive island-specific solutions. In other words, the agreement on phase one gives Britain a chance to be creative, and if it cannot do so it has nobody else to blame. In essence, the Europeans have presented us with an interesting negotiating test.
As ever, this has been hopelessly misconstrued by the ultras as the UK 'being sold down the river', but oddly enough, in berating this necessary inclusion in the text of today's agreement, they appear to completely dismiss the British government's ability to work towards the aforementioned specific solutions. Given their envied patriotic capacities, we can be forgiven for considering this a little odd.
We've only agreed Phase 1 because our lily-livered politicians have sold the country down the river. https://t.co/JWbDUBt8ph
— LEAVE.EU ???? (@LeaveEUOfficial) December 8, 2017
The threat of full UK alignment in the event of no bespoke border agreements should not come as a surprise. What else should the report have said? Fallbacks have to be provided somewhere and relying solely on WTO rules would certainly do nothing to protect the Good Friday Agreement. The phrasing is clever in that it helps to provide certainty whilst giving us a chance to set the agenda.
In principle, the UK has a binary choice to make: remain firmly embedded within European regulatory architecture or undergo what could be referred to as a transatlantic pivot. Like it or not, the EU and USA are the world's regulatory superpowers, regulatory divergence is not an opportunity presented by Brexit. Any hardline Leavers betting on regulatory detachment were always going to be disappointed. Today's commitment to full alignment in the absence of bespoke solutions merely reflects the size of the European market and its importance to us as our foremost trading partner.
We will not emerge post-Brexit as a regulatory superpower any more than we'll reclaim portions of the old empire. Thanks to harmonising devices like Article 2.4 of the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement, standard setting has increasingly emerged as a globalised pursuit. More and more, regulations are created by continental regulators and passed down even to the EU, which has lost substantial control over its regulatory agenda. This crucial point is always overlooked by those who say that remaining within the EU's regulatory sphere greatly harms our ability to sign global trade deals.
The aim for post-Brexit trade policy should not be to test how far we can distance ourselves from the EU's regulatory sphere. Eurosceptics are often guilty of using their hatred of the Union to justify any political or economic disassociation, no matter how infeasible or damaging. The more we diverge, the more sovereign we are, they may think. But in actual fact, the more we diverge, the more non-tariff barriers to trade we will encounter. This is a reality.
As a hesitant and inexperienced new customs entity, we should think of attachment to the European regulatory sphere as a helping hand. Without it, our intricately integrated supply chains will meet crippling resistance from all manner of checks and customs formalities. Third country protocols are designed deliberately to protect the integrity of the EU's established market. Close cooperation will bring some much needed stability.
Post-Brexit, British trade policy ought to be centred on efforts to bridge regulatory divides by championing global initiatives (like UNECE's Single Window) in regulatory forums and international conventions covering sectors we have significant expertise and clout in. This is not idealistic or implausible. If we are talking about international leadership, a truly 'global Britain' should divert its attention towards schemes designed to enhance trade facilitation.
It is inconceivable at this stage that the European Council will reject the Commission's recommendation to move on to the second phase of talks. The time frame simply won't allow for it. The immediate focus now should be upon massaging the need to avoid a hard Irish border and fighting to achieve necessary behind-the-border solutions to approaching problems. These include, for instance, reaching agreement on VAT and tackling the especially thorny issue of agricultural tariffs.
I don't think we should go as far as to describe today's progress as a huge achievement. If the Brexit negotiations have taught me anything it is to expect the unexpected and things could turn sour at any moment. Given that the Article 50 talks have been characterised by lengthy impasses, I am encouraged by progress of any kind. But I still maintain that the best Brexit available to Britain is one that sees us retain membership of the Single Market we were a frontrunner in creating.
The Irish border issue is now one of the key reasons for this and I think we will struggle to conjure up imaginative solutions to potential sources of friction. Ultimately we must work with the reality we have and I think we can at least be thankful for the chance. We have not been sold down a river. We have decided to leave well-protected structures and alternatives will not come easy. It's really now down to us.
Oliver Norgrove is a blogger and political commentator who worked for the Vote Leave campaign. He is campaigning for the UK's return to EFTA. He also studies a political Masters degree in Elections, Campaigns and Democracy
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.