Greater vision and laser-like focus on reality are needed if we are to emerge well out of the Covid and Brexit crises

David Frost, UK, and Michel Barnier, EU, chief negotiators

Imposing a unenforceable quarantine on visitors to the UK from other countries with lower death rates. Forcing MPs to vote in person to set an example for a return to work.  Even in the midst of crisis – or especially? – irrationality plays a great part in politics as is does in human nature generally. Somewhere there was a germ of a point that got overtaken by time and circumstances.  The problem is each case is how to get off the hook before worse damage is done.

Brexit provides a grand example of strategy so irrational that there must be something else behind it. But what’s the point of going through all the hassle in the first place?   The UK’s posture in refusing to extend the period of negotiations for EU withdrawal is explained away  as the necessary preliminary of a UK declaration of  independence –  a position now unanimously opposed by all three devolved legislatures . No matter that no deal would impose further damage on an economy engulfed by the Covid crisis. Or behind the bluster perhaps there’s a cunning plan, the frankly special deal Britain is angling for and that the EU side so far has insisted is impossible?

The Institute of government has suggested four ways out of the Brexit deadlock with the emphasis firmly on the last  

  1. Amend the end date of the transition period in the Withdrawal Agreement. This could be done at any point after June. But it would almost certainly require a European Court of Justice (ECJ) opinion before it could be done.
  2. Create a new transition period, which would begin at 11pm on 31 December 2020. But this would mean striking an entirely new, extremely complex agreement and a lengthy ratification process.
  3. Include an implementation phase as part of the future relationship treaty – a period of time between the conclusion of negotiations and the treaty coming into force where the UK and EU would phase in their new trading relationship.
  4. Create an implementation phase to prepare for no agreement – a period of time to adapt to a no-agreement scenario in the event that UK–EU trade talks break down..
  • Extending the Brexit timetable by 30 June – using the Withdrawal Agreement – offers the government the greatest certainty, flexibility and control over the terms of the extension. The terms of this extension cannot be imposed on the UK; they will need to be negotiated. The transition period could look different to what it is today: the UK could ask to opt out of some EU programmes and policies, like the common agricultural policy. This could, in turn, reduce the UK’s overall budgetary contribution to the EU. The government could also ask that the additional time be used for practical preparations for the new trading relationship, and not for negotiations. The government should be clear that June represents its best opportunity to adjust the Brexit timetable: any last-minute requests for more time, like the Article 50 extensions, could fail simply through procedure or lack of time.
  • In practice, relying on any of the other four options is a huge risk – each is politically sensitive, uncertain and/or legally complex.

Not that the EU is without sin, argues Newton Emerson, over the most contentious part of the withdrawal agreement, our own Protocol

The original sin of Brexit lies, of course, with the UK – but lying has never been restricted to Brexiteers. Erroneous claims of breaches to the Belfast Agreement created their own needless risks to peace and the agreement’s institutions. The EU’s approach to Northern Ireland has been dangerously cynical from the outset. Whatever excuse there might still be for that, there is no longer any excuse for not seeing it,

He goes straight to practicalities.

Four-fifths of all grocery spending in Northern Ireland takes place in just three supermarket chains: Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda. Tesco and Asda have one distribution centre each in the region: Tesco in the Belfast Harbour Estate and Asda by the Port of Larne…

In theory, an average supermarket container arriving in Northern Ireland faces European Union compliance costs of anywhere between £6,000 (a third of its value) and £100,000. Even the lower estimate would be ruinous..

Many nationalists in Northern Ireland will think a tight sea border heralds an all-Ireland economy and political unity, which would serve unionists right. This forgets the sea border runs all the way down the Irish Sea. If retailers in Northern Ireland cannot stock their shelves economically from Britain, they cannot do so via the Republic… Without a trade deal, the Republic would face a difficult adjustment of its own.

 In the end, expecting the UK to voluntarily disrupt its food supply for the EU’s paperwork is a political unicorn. If the sea border is unworkable, containers will be waved through at Belfast and checkpoints will go up in Dundalk. It is in nobody’s interest in Ireland to see this happen, yet Brussels is prepared to play games with the scenario

Perhaps Newton’s examples are a little too easy? Food shipments  to supermarkets are hardly the thorniest problem.  However his down to earth examples conjour up both a nightmare of failure and a  vision of  ideal light touch regulation, which the British side are propagating for political advantage.  If only the other problems could be wished away.

The   grandest  vision of a world of free trade with its inevitable qualification,  a level playing field, is offered in the Irish News by Willie McCarter who in his time has clocked up more experience  than most in Ireland of cross border, European and US  investment and trading.

It is time for radical action by the UK and the EU. A massive free trade area comprising the US, the UK and the EU would seriously underpin the recovery from the pandemic recession.

Much of the ground work on a free trade area has already been done between the US and the UK and suggested talks on the three-way agreement could be concluded within two years.

During these talks he suggests the EU and UK could conduct parallel negotiations to establish a long-term agreement.

In the long term, the UK could become a “special” part of the EU single market and customs union with current arrangements continuing in perpetuity.

“The UK would have to observe the rules of the EU single market and customs union. However, since the UK would then be a special part of the single market and customs union, the EU might agree that some special conditions might apply to the UK.

Among other conditions, there could be “free labour movement by EU citizens” but not immigration “surges” and that the UK subscribe ten billion euro per year to the EU.

This is no time for the UK and EU to be negotiating under severe time constraints by video when so many jobs and livelihoods are at severe risk.”

As I say, if only…



Imagine festival 202

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