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Brexit: wishful thinking

2017-05-13 04:24:15

For Brexit followers, Co Wicklow was the place to be yesterday, where Tony Blair was holding forth to a closed meeting of the European People's Party (EPP), telling us that it would be a "disaster" for Ireland to have a hard border, although he was "sure everyone will and must do all they can to avoid it".

The former British prime minister also enjoined negotiators to use "good will and a lot of ingenuity and innovation" to avoid one, before venturing that the British public could change their minds on Brexit when they see the actual terms of the deal.

Meanwhile, a former Irish diplomat turned critic of his country's Brexit policy has said there is no such thing as a "soft border" and that there will be a border with installations between the Republic and the North.

This was Ray Bassett, former ambassador to Canada, who said that, over time, the border was likely to harden rather than soften and would cause problems for both governments with an increase in smuggling and criminality. "To be quite honest", he said, "in the EU there isn't really such a thing as a soft border. We're using euphemisms there, that we will have a border in Ireland, we will have installations on it".

Such candour is unusual and refreshing, the latter because it cuts though the wishful thinking that seems to pervade this entire issue. The "hard" border is defined by the numerous EU laws which define the various procedures that must be applied to goods from third countries before they can be permitted to cross the EU's external border and freely circulate within the internal market.

The trigger which brings these procedures into effect following Brexit will be the automatic assumption by the UK of the status of "third country".  There are no exceptions to the rules, even where there are free trade agreements in force. Therefore, as long as EU law remains in force, Bassett is entirely right in his assertion. There isn't really such a thing as a soft border.

However, during his visit to the area yesterday, Barnier told the press: "There is always an answer to what shape the Irish border takes after Brexit", adding: "there is always a road when there is a will".

Nevertheless. he warned that the negotiation "will be extraordinary and very complex and difficult", even if the talks were firstly focused on human, social and economic issues. For all that, he offered no detail and no clues as to how these "very complex and difficult" negotiations would develop. Instead, he said: "I want to listen, to meet the people on the ground, to come into the negotiation having the feet on the ground".

One of those which Barnier visited was Swift Fine Foods, supplier of ready meals to supermarkets across Ireland and the UK. A 15-20 million a year business, it sources food from both sides of the border and had planned on a 40 percent expansion of its exports to the UK.

According to the Guardian such businesses are the ones at risk. "Places like this, you could almost turn the lights out if there is a hard border", said director Rod Wood. "I remember the queues of the old days, you wouldn't know if you were going to be five minutes getting through the border or an hour", he said. "We can't go back to those days. Our businesses and businesses around here are completely integrated with the UK as an economy".

Interestingly, his chairman, Ted O'Neill, called for a "five to 10 year transition period" before the UK's complete withdrawal. There speaks realism.

The only message that Barnier would give to the Irish Government, though, was that his door was "open for ideas about how to manage the border after Brexit". But, in order to provide "flexible and imaginative solutions" which "respect the integrity of the EU legal order", Mr Barnier's Brexit taskforce expects proposals from Dublin. He is effectively passing the buck.

Downplaying expectations, an EU spokesman has then made it clear that no "concrete plans" for the border will be possible until the future EU-UK trade relationship is clear. That will not come until much later in the talks, probably towards the middle of next year. EU sources said that Irish initiatives would be welcomed and form an important part of the future negotiations with the UK.

Presumably trying to be helpful, EPP leader Manfred Weber also intervened, declaring that, if it was part of a package of solutions, the EPP and the European Parliament would co-operate in changing EU rules to facilitate a special deal to maintain a soft border.

Weber was less helpful when it came to his views on the British, saying that: "in London there is too little awareness of what Brexit means". They could not, he said, take the bits that they like and not take the bits that they do not like. "Maybe they do not realise this", he added, but "if we allow cherry-picking, people in the EU would see that leaving the EU is not a problem".

That said, it is by no means certain that playing fast and loose with EU law is permissible. If the EU imposes one set of rules for its external border with the UK, while maintaining different, more rigorous rules for other "third countries", it could find itself in breach of WTO non-discrimination rules.

Then there are the internal issues, which are just as problematical. If Irish border controls are relaxed and Northern Ireland is outside the EU while remaining part of the UK, there would be nothing to stop exporters from the UK using the border as a "back door" into the rest of the Single Market. Moreover, imports from the rest of the world into the UK could find their way into the EU by this route, threatening its integrity.

To prevent this, goods exported from Northern Ireland would have to be documented and retain their identity, thus enabling the implementation of a ban on re-export. Unfortunately, the administrative complications of this would create a powerful disincentive for trade, with inevitable economic consequences.

Altogether, there are no easy or obvious answers to the border question and it will take more than honeyed words Barnier to resolve it. But, for the moment, this is all we're getting. Yet, says the New Statesman, no amount of banal reassurance can disguise the fact that uncertainties remain. There will be some hardening of what is currently an almost entirely imperceptible border. 

It's safe, the magazine concludes, to file Barnier and the Commission's "flexible and imaginative" solution in the same drawer as the "seamless and frictionless" border proposed in HM Government's Brexit white paper. As things stand, "these insistences amount to little more than wishful thinking. While the will is there, few are confident that anyone not least the UK government have any idea how to pull it off".

The last word, therefore, goes to Danuta Huebner, chair of the European Parliament's constitutional-affairs committee. Her message for the UK Government is: "get your head out of the sand". Her view is that the British government is underestimating the difficulties of Brexit and the costs involved. "There is a creation of expectations that might not be fulfilled", she says. "These are going to be extremely difficult negotiations". 

And that, when it comes to Brexit, is the only certainty.