The UK’s White Paper is a Serious Offer: Ireland and the EU Should Give a Flexible Response
During the 2016 referendum campaign, the Irish Government vigorously warned of the damage a ‘leave’ vote would do both to its own national interests and to those of the island of Ireland as a whole. Those warnings were largely ignored. Private-enterprise ‘remain’ campaigners, such as myself, were constantly told that only the fear of personal financial loss would work as a lever of persuasion on would-be leavers and that to make the moral case for Europe was a waste of breath. David Cameron was getting much the same advice from his spin gurus while being assured, even as the polls closed, that he had won.
Today, if there is one principal issue which stands in the way of an agreement between the May Government and our EU partners, it is the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. That is in large part due to the determination of the Irish Government and Britain’s other EU partners to ensure that the provisions of the Good Friday agreement are not undermined. But it is also an expression of the will of the British Government – which signed up to, and then confirmed, its agreement to the so-called ‘backstop’ – to achieve the same goal.
For the May Government, this issue is not dictated solely by their reliance on DUP votes at Westminster. Certainly, it is at the DUP’s insistence that the idea of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland has been rejected. But Mrs May is surely right when she says that such an arrangement would in any event be unacceptable to any British Government. The political implications of having a frontier-free customs union between part of the UK (Northern Ireland) and another country (Ireland) while having no such frontier-free union between two parts of the UK itself would be life-threatening to the Union. But I also think that Theresa May, unlike the careless extremists on her Brexiteer benches, appreciates the significance of this issue in the other direction as well, namely the risks to the economic welfare and the peace of the island of Ireland as a whole if the hard border were to be re-established.
Were it not so, the British Government could have proposed, as the ultimate destination for the UK after it leaves the EU, a Free Trade Area on Canadian lines, albeit with add-ons. That would have left the UK free to make its own unhampered trade deals with other countries and disentangled the UK from the European Court of Justice. As such, it would have kept the Brexiteers onside. Instead, May has risked all (her own future and that of her Government) on a proposal for a UK/EU trading relationship which may founder at Westminster and/or in Brussels. For it concedes too much to the EU for Brexiteers to stomach, and leaves too big a chunk of the UK’s EU trade (services) in limbo for it to satisfy Remainers. Nor, probably, does it go far enough to satisfy the demands of the EU, though they will see it as a basis for negotiation.
The one constant in the Government’s approach so far has been that of consistency with the backstop: no hard border between north and south in Ireland. So, if the 27 insist on further concessions from the UK, as things stand, the only further moves by the British Government which could still meet the ‘backstop’ conditions would all be in the direction of full membership of the customs union, or more. But there is no sign that the May Government could agree on, let alone get support from their MPs for, such a move. And May cannot go back to something palatable to her hardliners without reneging on the backstop, which would make a deal with the EU impossible. The Chequers proposals were the most delicate of balancing acts. If they fail, they will leave the Government floundering, since all the obvious exits will be blocked.
I cannot see a ready way out of this conundrum. A General Election would solve nothing, since Labour have no detectably different policy of their own. And, for a second referendum to make sense, there would have to be a choice for the electorate that was not simply a re-run of 2016.
So far, the 27 have demanded a clear picture of the end-state of the UK’s relations with the EU post-transition as the price of the withdrawal agreement. As things stand today, a hard cliff-edge Brexit looks quite likely, not because any but a few Brexiteers wants it, but by default. Far better than that would be to allow the transition to start without absolute clarity as to the end state. Britain would have left the EU and the climate in which sensible outcomes could be reached would be less frenzied. An alternative would be to extend the Article 50 period to allow for further negotiation before Britain leaves. But that would be the realisation of the Brexiteers’ worst fears: that somehow the Remain elite would then prevent Britain from ever leaving.
The Government’s White Paper is a serious piece of work. It deserves serious consideration by our EU partners. Some flexibility on process, of the kind I have suggested, would breach no substantive national or collective EU interest. As President Trump drives a stake through the heart of the institutions which have given us unprecedented peace and prosperity in Europe, is it not time to think of the fundamental shared interests between the UK and the rest of the EU and for both sides to take a strategic view of where our common future should lie?
Stephen Wall was for 35 years a member of the British Diplomatic Service. He was Private Secretary to five British Foreign Secretaries, a Press Officer for Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister John Major. His European experience includes five years as Head of the Foreign Office European Department; two years as Britain’s Ambassador to Portugal; five years as UK Permanent Representative to the EU and four years as EU adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. His book on Britain’s EU policy, ‘A Stranger in Europe’, was published in 2008. He has written The Official History of Britain and the European Community, 1963-1975, published in July 2012. The successor volume (The Tiger Unleashed), covering the Thatcher era, is due to be published later this year. He chairs The Federal Trust (a UK Research Institute) Cumberland Lodge (an educational charity) and Kaleidoscope Trust (which campaigns for LGBT rights overseas).