EU Referendum

Brexit: for a mere €1 billion a week


000a tanker-028 Brexit.jpg

In its own drearily predictable way, the behaviour of the legacy media can almost be guaranteed.

Given a subject of importance, it will ignore the issues way past the point where those most closely involved begin to wonder whether it will ever notice what's going on. Then, at the last minute, it suddenly wakes up and "discovers" what everybody else has been talking about for months (if not years) and, in its arrogance, takes possession of the subject.

Its journalists and co-opted commentariat will become instant experts and start issuing us mere mortals with verbose, self-important pieces, telling us "all you need to know" about the objects of their newly acquired interest, while the BBC regales us with "reality checks", conveying the findings of their teenage "researchers".

One such subject which has recently become fashionable in this way is the "Irish question". Despite this having been an issue right from the beginning in the Brexit talks, it has been given far less attention than the financial settlement, which has been the obsession of the media for some long while.

When they do "discover" a subject, though, the other thing we can almost certainly guarantee is that the media writers will display a profound ignorance for the details, presenting to the world a lack of grip which survives only because the industry is entirely inwards-focused and entirely impervious to criticism.

Everything is relative, of course, and to get to the dregs one used to have to go to the tabloids. But, more recently, The Daily Telegraph has been giving the redtops a run for their money, plumbing the depths of stupidity combined with ignorance and prejudice.

A glorious example of this is the piece by Juliet Samuel, optimistically published in the "premium" section under the headline: "Is Ireland really willing to put watchtowers on our border to inspect a few milk churns?" (No paywall on this link.)

This is the Telegraph view of the cross-border inspection problem facing the Irish authorities as they confront a trade amounting to around one billion litres of milk produced in Northern Ireland which goes over the border for processing every year, worth €2-300 million each year.

However, one can quite imagine the superior chortles in the Samuel household as the egregious Juliet regales her smart dinner party guests with the vision of stout Irish peasants and their ancient tractors and trailers laden with milk churns, chugging over the border to be confronted with uniformed customs men ready to peer into the interstices of their battered milk containers.

This, undoubtedly is the metropolitan clever-dick view of the milk production. It certainly reflects Samuel's views, as she actually refers to "this dangerous movement of tractors and cows", notwithstanding that the Irish diary industry is one of the most modern in the world. It is many decades since milk producers last saw milk churn, other than as museum pieces to remind them of times gone by.

Most likely, the milk will be collected by modern, articulated milk tankers (pictured), from gleaming stainless steel storage vessels filled by obedient cows which, these days, are most likely milked by high-tech robots, untouched by human hand.

The thing about metropolitan clever-dicks though is that they don't do detail and facts are an optional extra. Freed from any obligation to inform – and even the slightest need for accuracy - la Samuel is allowed to visit her ignorance upon us, grandly telling us: "There are few Brexit issues as tricky as the Irish border. Difficult as the issue is, however, there is an easy way to summarise the general British view: you create a border if you want to. The UK has no interest in doing so".

If he was already dead, one could imagine Michel Barnier rotating in his grave at such speed that local seismologists would be recording ground movements of earthquake intensity. As it is, one can almost hear his weary voice repeating the simple fact that, in leaving the EU, the UK creates by virtue of its withdrawal an external border between itself and the EU.

This, as Barnier would say, is not something the EU has done. This is the consequence of the UK leaving the EU, acquiring the status of a "third country".

This, of course, sails over the head of la Samuel. She refuses to accept that a border is necessary. The demands for it are simply a measure of "Irish anger and EU dogma". To move on, she says, "the UK should make two things clear: Britain will not be the one recreating Northern Ireland's old, hated border, and the future of the six counties will be decided by their own people".

To make her case, Samuel then seeks to diminish the extent of the problem, arguing that, "as borders go, the invisible line between Northern Ireland and the Republic is hardly the site of a great international trading bonanza".

A third of the trade across the border, she days, consists of live animals and food, of which a large portion is milk, trundling south, fresh out of cows’ udders, and back north after pasteurisation. By comparison, she gives the value of Northern Ireland's exports to Ireland as about £3.6 billion in 2015, "just under five percent of its total sales of goods and services and a quarter of the amount it sold to Great Britain".

In Samuel's view: "It's important to keep the scale of trade across the Irish border in mind because, although it is extremely important to all who live and farm around it, the data is a reminder that we are talking about a very, very small contributor to the economics of the EU single market".

What of course, she neglects is that much of the trade with the UK goes via Northern Ireland, contributing to the 400,000 cross-border movements of commercial vehicles per month.

Then there is the totality of the trade between Ireland and the UK. In 2014, for instance, Ireland imported €11.4 billion in services and exported £18 billion-worth. As regards trade in goods, in 2015, exports to the UK were valued at €13.8 billion while imports stood at a healthy £16.9 billion.

On average, Ireland and the UK trade in goods and services amounts to well over a €1 billion a week – only slightly less than half the amount traded with the entire United States.

Affected by the trading relationship forged between Ireland and the UK, therefore, is not just cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the entire volume of trade. In value terms, that has the UK exporting more to Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined.

After Brexit, the problem – as defined by Samuel – "is that Northern Ireland will no longer be subject to EU rules after Brexit, meaning all of its exports will need to undergo EU inspection and tariffs, which inevitably requires a hard border". The only way to avoid this, we are told, is to keep Northern Ireland inside the EU single market and customs union, moving the hard border into Britain, at the Irish Sea.

Britain, predictably, disagrees that a hard border is needed. The UK has suggested instead that large, cross-border businesses be subject to a "trusted traders" regime, which would allow inspections to take place on business premises, rather than at the border. For small traders, Britain's suggestion is even more radical: they should simply be exempt from the demands of inspections and tariffs.

This, Samuel considers, "is a pragmatic and humane approach". But, she says, "the EU hates it and, more importantly, so does Ireland. Both Dublin and Brussels argue that not policing the border would destroy the legal integrity of the single market. The EU's external borders are sacrosanct, they declare, and must be thoroughly policed". Thus, does Samuel grandly opine:
There is something slightly surreal about this objection. The EU's external borders are, as we have seen, rather porous. We are invited to believe that the Single Market's integrity hinges on the inspection of milk cartons moving across the Irish border when the EU routinely allows thousands of undocumented people to enter its territory across the Mediterranean. This is, frankly, bonkers.
Personally, I distrust anyone who uses the word "bonkers" in an argument. There is something ineffably unserious about it, which betrays a like character in its user.

Furthermore, we can see what Samuel has done, reducing the issue to a matter of "the inspection of milk cartons moving across the Irish border", then introducing the straw man of the EU routinely allowing "thousands of undocumented people to enter its territory across the Mediterranean", which has nothing to do with the Single Market.

Further trivialising the issue, she then declares that "the UK will not be putting up watchtowers to inspect milk churns". Instead, she says, we will "continue to trust Irish and EU standards".

This piece of stupidity, we should remind ourselves, comes in a newspaper which supports the "WTO option". Strangely though, those people who seem to be most keen about WTO rules seems to know least about them.

As we know, the UK itself will be keeping in place its inspections on products from other third countries (and has already undertaken to continue using EU law). But, to avoid falling foul of WTO anti-discrimination rules, it must subject imports from the EU to exactly the same regimes. Nevertheless, the UK will not be putting up "watchtowers". Instead, it will have to spend millions on new Border Inspection Posts.

Neither are we finished yet. Samuel, without beginning to understand the implication of the UK becoming a "third country", believes "Ireland is flexing its negotiating muscle". Then, failing to think through the consequences of a "no deal" scenario, she asserts that, if Britain leaves the EU with no deal whatsoever, "the country that will suffer most from that, aside from the UK, is Ireland".

Stupid to the last, she concludes, "All this in aid of policing the Irish milk market. It hardly seems worth it". Never mind that, as this European Parliament report sets out, in the course of production of Guinness, approximately 13,000 border crossings are made each year. Bombardier, one of Northern Ireland's largest employers, engages more than 60 suppliers in Ireland.

In her ignorance, bound up with the arrogance that afflicts her type, Samuel maintains a haughty indifference to these wider issues. Nor, I suspect, is she aware of MV Celine and the implications of her move to Dublin. Given a UK failure to accommodate the needs of Ireland and the EU, the Irish are quite capable of shifting the bulk of their trade to the continent and beyond.

As the MV Celine indicates, there are already preparing the ground and activities will intensify if we end up with a hard border. Already, in term of, trade in goods, the UK is no longer Ireland's most lucrative trading partner. Its importance will continue to diminish.

But then, to arrest the decline, we have to do something serious about addressing the Irish border question. And on this, we might ask Samuel, does a mere €1 billion a week seem worth it?