Most of the media seems to be maintaining the fallacy that the UK Government has done some kind of Brexit deal. It seems that all sides of the Brexit political divide can imagine they see a win in the agreement for them, and that’s the only thing keeping the myth of a successful stage one alive. I see a sinister motivation behind the praise heaped on the Prime Minister by the main Leave Campaigners such as Gove, Davis and Johnson.
The truth is that no deal has been done, unless you mean the one to just kick the problem of the undoable deal down the road. The UK Prime Minister has promised the moon to the DUP, the stars to the EU and the Sun to Ireland, and none are her gifts to give.
The first thing to know is that the deal is in no way a legal document and so is not binding, and it can’t be as it’s completely contradictory. Hence the Prime Minister’s new catchphrase “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. Just as meaningless as “Brexit means Brexit”, but it leaves the required level of ambiguity required for all sides to hope that they can still get what they want from the negotiations.
Clause 45 of the statement commits the UK to maintaining open borders on the island of Ireland in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. However, it also states quite clearly that the UK will leave the Single Market and Customs Union, and those two clear promises contradict one another.
It clearly assumes one of two outcomes; either the DUP will U-turn and accept that Northern Ireland will be outside the UK’s internal market, but that would look suspiciously like a clear step towards a united Ireland and they wont accept that. Or it assumes that the EU will not police its borders with the UK when we leave the Single Market and Customs Union – but it will. Sweden and Norway share a border and the two economies are very closely linked. Norway, although not of the EU, has a deal via EFTA to access the Single Market but still has paper rather than hard borders with Sweden because some products require tariffs etc and that may be the best we can hope for.
The ‘non-deal’ doesn’t solve the Irish border problem but just promises to try and find a way to do so, and states if that can’t be done then the whole of the UK will maintain regulatory alignment with the EU, making people think there will be a soft Brexit. That, however, would seriously restrict the UK’s ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries outside the EU who’s products cant be imported as they don’t meet EU standards.
It is feasible for different parts of the UK to have different access to the Single Market and Customs Union, but that requires some level of border controls and checks, and most vitally: political agreement. The former has been ruled out and so the latter is an impossibility.
A Brexit that kept the whole UK in the Single Market and Customs Union would still be economically damaging versus not leaving, and that we could still live with – but it’s not politically acceptable.
A soft Brexit would mean maintaining EU regulations; the European Court of Justice being the highest court; freedom of movement to work, for finance and for products would stay; and we would incur a cost well in excess of the £50 billion already suggested. Leavers would say “what was the point of Brexit” and “that isn’t what we voted for”.
So the options are a politically unacceptable soft Brexit, or an economically unacceptable hard Brexit, or cancelling Brexit.
Canceling Brexit is to my mind impossible now. Can you imagine the millions of British nationalist Brexit voters accepting the UK admitting to the world that it got it wrong and going cap in hand to the EU asking them to please ignore our strop and please, please, please let us back in, and oh can we please keep all the billions they give us in annual rebates. It just won’t happen, and as resentment grows against the EU in the negotiations the support for leaving may harden.
So unless – a) The DUP decide that Irish unification would be a good thing after all, or b) everyone who voted Leave decides that the most embarrassing national climbdown in political history would put the Great back in Great Britain or c) the EU decide not to police border with a third country which would lead to the collapse of the EU itself – we are now heading for a hard Brexit and hard border in Ireland. My preferred Brexit option (other than one that involves Scottish independence) is for the UK to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union.
OK, so the deal to move to the next stage of negotiations is confusing, contradictory and clearly only agreed by the EU as they think they can use the agreement to force Single Market membership upon the UK, but what is the sinister bit?
A hard Brexit has become toxic and even the dogmatic hard Brexit champions know that now is not the time to push so hard that the process falls apart, or that May is undermined and a General Election called. They just want to Brexit as soon as possible even under terms that are not completely to their liking.
They are going along with May’s promises because they know a soft Brexit will cost too much. EFTA membership or similar is not much cheaper than full membership but involves borders, limited tariffs, no EU grants and for the UK to be a follower of EU rules including those on immigration. That’s not a Brexit, it is second rate membership deal and the key hard Brexit supporters know that it might get agreed but wont be acceptable to the Leave voting public.
Hence Micheal Gove saying “The British people will be in control. If the British people dislike the agreement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.” The hard Brexit leaders realise that getting out quickly with a compromised Brexit takes the wind out of the cancel Brexit movement, and May will be blamed for the mess that follows.
Then at the next election May will be replaced as conservative leader by a hard Brexit candidate who will then seek a mandate to change the deal to the hard one they prefer once not leaving is taken off the table. It’s a combination of unfulfilled personal ambitions of a few unreconstructed British nationalism leaders meeting a pragmatic double dip to Brexit approach to keep their opponents off balance long enough to line up a hard Brexit. One that will be worse for Scotland than any other part of the UK and we have to start planning to avoid it one way or the other now.