Growing Momentum for a Deal
Jennifer Powers (Alternative Arrangements Commission Technical Panel)
Harold Wilson’s observation that ‘a week is a long time in politics’ needs updating for our Brexit times. After three long years of dithering and months of paralysis, the prospect of a deal has risen sharply overnight following the publication of UK proposals for the Irish Border.
Arlene Foster signalled the DUP’s support calling it a ‘serious and sensible way forward’ and warning against No Deal, as soon as the proposals were published.
Arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker MP and newly appointed chair of the European Research Group (ERG), a pro-Brexit caucus with the UK Parliament, called the proposals “fair and reasonable”. While Baker did not commit to supporting the deal, the door is open.
Significantly, Suella Braverman, former chair of the ERG, came out in support of the deal almost immediately. Warm words from veteran Eurosceptic John Redwood MP were perhaps the most surprising twist to this Brexit tale.
On the Labour side, there is a group of MPs led by Stephen Kinnock and Caroline Flint (who largely but not exclusively represent Leave-voting seats) who have called on Jeremy Corbyn to support a deal. This group numbers 26 publicly but is thought to have around 40 supporters, perhaps more.
Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth, two prominent MPs from Leave-voting constituencies have said they will vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal if it is approved by the EU.
The proposals for an amended protocol on Ireland /North Ireland constitute a serious offer by the UK Government. They are radically different from May’s offer and include major concessions to the EU. The proposed single SPS (sanitary-phytosanitary) zone for agri-foods builds on the common livestock zone which already operates on the island of Ireland (with the associated checks that entails). But the UK Government’s offer goes even further, proposing a single regulatory zone for all goods. Under the plans, Northern Ireland can, should it choose, effectively remain in the Single Market while remaining outside the customs territory.
The foundations for this deal have been laid for some time. Dialogue between Ireland and the UK has improved since Johnson became Prime Minister and relations between the Conservative Party and the DUP are stronger. The Brexiteers in Parliament have more Trust in Boris Johnson than they ever did in Theresa May. The work of the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangement’s Commission, which started in April, formed a blueprint for the NI proposals published yesterday.
While we wait to learn if the EU will agree to talks, and the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration which many emerge, it is worth reflecting on the shift in policy under Boris Johnson. The UK Government has finally faced up to the inherent trade-offs of Brexit and made its preferences clear. You can not have frictionless trade outside the EU Customs Union. But you can work to have as little friction as possible, something these proposals seek to achieve. The UK wants a relationship with the EU based on an advanced and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and understands the repercussions of that decision.
The UK’s proposals for the Irish Border are not the status quo. It involves change for business on both sides of the border. This needs to be acknowledged. Business needs to be supported.
But Brexit is not the status quo, it involves change. Protecting the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent have been central to the UK Government’s thinking. Hence, the role of Northern Ireland institutions in any decision. The proposals also protect the integrity of the Single Market – something May’s deal failed to do.
We have a few weeks to go before the 31 October deadline, and Wilson’s words hang in the air, but the momentum in the UK for a deal is growing. As of today, the numbers in Parliament are there. How will the EU respond? How will Ireland?
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog
Jennifer Powers is a trade policy consultant and member of the Alternative Arrangements Commission Technical Panel