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The Brexit Border Backstop

The other Europeans are not laughing at the English for the most part. They are looking at them with pity and scorn. But also with a great deal of impatience.

On Tuesday the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ for Britain’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, painfully negotiated over more than two-and-a-half years, by an overwhelming 149-vote majority.

It was the second time parliament, including a large chunk of her own Conservative Party, rejected the deal she made with the EU last November. And the main reason both times was the so-called ‘backstop’: a commitment by May’s government to avoid a hard border in Ireland at all costs.

Today (I am writing on Wednesday), the British parliament will also reject a proposal that Britain just leave the EU without a deal. ‘Crashing out’ would mean instant customs barriers at the United Kingdom’s port, airports and land borders, with immense disruption of trade including food imports and industrial supply chains. It would be an economic disaster.

On Thursday, once that option is foreclosed, the British parliament will vote on asking the EU for a postponement of the departure date (currently scheduled for the 29th of this month). That vote will almost certainly pass, but neither the government nor parliament can even agree on how long a postponement to ask for.

If your local daycare was this feckless, you’d move your children at once.

The EU will probably grant the United Kingdom a delay to avoid a ‘no-deal Brexit’, but there will be no more negotiations: the delay would only be to give May time to sort out the politics of getting her deal through. It will be a long delay, not just a few weeks, because nobody believes she can do that quickly (if at all). And it will require the consent of all the EU’s 27 other national leaders.

It’s all about the ‘backstop’. That’s why parliament won’t pass May’s deal, and it’s why the EU refuses to re-negotiate it.

May’s November deal with the EU promised that the United Kingdom would stay in the existing customs union with the EU, and also remain closely aligned with the ‘single market’ that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour across the whole EU – until and unless the two parties negotiate an alternative arrangement that keeps the inter-Irish border unpoliced and almost unmarked.

If you drive the 500-km. border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the road crosses it dozens of times (there are 270 vehicle crossings). The only way you know you have crossed the border again is that speed limits are posted in kilometres in the republic, but in miles in the North.

But for 30 years during the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1999), which saw 3,000 people killed in a province of less than two million people, the border was a war zone. British soldiers, of whom hundreds died there, called it ‘bandit country’.

The killing ended with the ‘Good Friday agreement’ of 1999, which managed to achieve a compromise between the Protestants of Northern Ireland (who feel British) and the Catholics (who mostly identify as Irish). There would be power-sharing at government level, and the border with the Republic would become invisible. The Irish nationalists in the North could even have Irish passports instead of British ones.

Brexit is almost entirely an English nationalist project – Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU – and the Brexiteers just ignored the fact that leaving the EU would sabotage the Good Friday deal by creating a hard border in Ireland. There would have to be customs officers and passport checks, or else there would be huge amounts of smuggling and an uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants.

But a hard border would bring the war back, even though most people don’t want it. The population on the UK side of the border is overwhelmingly Catholic, and any attempt to control the border without putting officials on it will fail: the local people will just destroy the cameras and other sensors.

But put in customs officials, and you will need police to protect them – and soon enough you will need soldiers to protect the police. Welcome to the Troubles, volume two.

So the Irish government demanded that the border stay open and invisible. It is and will remain a member of the EU, so that became EU policy. Which means Northern Ireland (and therefore all the rest of the UK) must stay in the customs union until someone comes up with a magical method for controlling the border invisibly.

That’s why the ‘backstop’ was necessary, and Theresa May accepted that when she signed the deal last November. But she cannot sell it to her own party’s hard-line Brexiteers, let alone to the other parties in parliament. Magical thinking still rules, and the arrogance is as breathtaking as the ignorance.

What happens next? Nobody has any idea.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“The other…impatience”; and “The EU…leaders”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Brexit Referendums: Best Two out of Three?

The five-day debate in the British parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union did not start well for her. Everybody knows that she hasn’t got the votes to pass the deal, but it turned out that she hasn’t got the votes for lots of other things either.

It’s a rotten deal because it was bound to be. The EU is 27 other countries with a population seven times that of the United Kingdom, so it was always going to have the upper hand in negotiations. It played hardball in the talks because it needed to demonstrate that Britain would be worse off by leaving. Otherwise other members might also decide they could ‘cherry-pick’ the bits of the EU they liked and skip the rest.

So the EU countries stuck together, and May’s government was forced to choose between a ‘no-deal’ Brexit that would cause chaos in the UK and the lousy deal that the EU offered her instead. In a moment of sanity, she chose the latter.

The deal leaves Britain still part of the common market the Brexiters wanted to quit and still paying into the EU budget, but no longer with any voice in the EU’s decisions. Moreover, Britain can only exit that halfway house with the consent of the EU.

That consent will only be forthcoming if May can somehow find a way to keep the border between Northern Ireland (a part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which will remain an EU member) ‘invisible’. Until then, Britain must stay in the customs union.

End the customs union and the inter-Irish border becomes a real barrier where customs duties are collected and illegal immigrants are stopped. But that would hinder the free passage of Irish people, which was the heart of the deal that stopped the killing in Ireland twenty years ago. The ‘Troubles’ would return – or at least that’s what people fear, including the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who effectively has a veto on EU policy on this issue.

So May’s deal leaves the UK half-in and half-out of the EU, “shackled to a radiator” until such time as it comes up with a magical solution to that border conundrum. In fact, there is none: the Good Friday agreement that ended the war in Ireland assumed that both the UK and the Irish Republic would remain EU members, and it cannot survive a full rupture of that relationship.

May’s deal was therefore never going to make it through parliament. Those who don’t want Brexit (at least half the members of the House of Commons) will vote against it, but so will the real Brexiters, who see it as a betrayal of their fantasy. And if party discipline is going to collapse anyway, then you might as well vote for what you actually want.

May lost three votes in parliament on Monday, which gravely undermined the authority of her government. The most important was one that took away her freedom to decide what to do next if (or rather when) her deal is voted down. Now, PARLIAMENT decides what to do next – and it could choose a number of courses, including a second referendum on Brexit.

The second referendum has become the unicorn of British politics, a fabled beast that never shows up in real life, but there are unicorn droppings all over the Houses of Parliament this week. As the fantasies fade and reality bites, the members of House of Commons (of whom a majority always supported ‘Remain’, even if many hid their views in order to survive politically) have become an extraordinarily volatile group.

There are half a dozen possible outcomes to the parliamentary manoeuvring of this week, ending with the decisive vote on May’s deal next Tuesday, but several of them would probably lead to a second referendum that might reverse the Brexit vote of June, 2016. And the European Court of Justice’s advocate-general has just ruled that the UK could, if it wishes, just drop its application to leave without needing the permission of other EU members.

It would be a remarkable result: three years of huffing and puffing about ‘sovereignty’, followed by a meek resumption of Britain’s (quite advantageous) position in the EU. Of course, the angry Leavers would cry ‘Foul!’ and demand yet another referendum – ‘Best of Three’ – or they could just take to the streets.

There are frequent veiled threats in the right-wing press that any thwarting of the Brexit dream by a second referendum could result in blood in the streets. That may be so, although it’s more likely to be another of those ‘Project Fear’ campaigns that have disfigured the entire Brexit process.

In any case, if it should ever come to street-fighting, the Remainers would win easily. They are, on average, thirteen years younger than the Brexiters.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“End…issue”)

Brexit and the Border

It was either ignorant or irresponsible for those campaigning for Brexit (British exit from the European Union) two years ago to claim that the Irish border would not be a problem. In fact, it may lead to a catastrophic ‘no deal’ Brexit in which the United Kingdom crashes out of the EU without an agreement of any kind.

Both the British negotiators and their EU counterparts say that the deal is “95 percent agreed”, but the other five percent is the border between the Republic of Ireland (an EU member ) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK and therefore soon NOT part of the EU). Time is running out, and agreement on that last five percent is far from certain.

The border has been invisible since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 ended 30 years of bloody conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Three thousand people had been killed, but the situation had reached stalemate. The Good Friday deal let both sides accept that fact.

For the (Catholic) nationalists in Northern Ireland, a completely open border with the (Catholic) Republic was a vital part of the deal. It implicitly acknowledged that the two parts of the island might one day be reunited, although not now.

As the 1998 agreement plainly said, people born in Northern Ireland have the right to be “Irish or British or both as they may so choose.” And it worked, sort of: the only way you can tell you have crossed the border now is that the speed signs change from miles to kilometres or vice versa.

It was a brave, imaginative deal that has given Northern Ireland twenty years of peace, but it is now at risk. When the ‘Leave’ side narrowly won the Brexit referendum in the UK and Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister in 2016, she had a credibility problem. Like Cameron, she had supported ‘Remain’, but the Conservative Party she now led was dominated by triumphant Brexiters.

So she became an enthusiastic Brexiter herself. The English nationalists who ran the Brexit campaign had said nothing about leaving the EU’s ‘single market’ and customs union, but within weeks of taking office May declared that Britain must leave both of them.

She even made this demand part of her famous ‘red lines’, the non-negotiable minimum that the British government would accept in the divorce settlement. Unfortunately, ending the customs union would mean re-creating a ‘hard’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – and that might lead to a renewal of the sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants in the North.

It’s not clear when the Conservative government in London realised that the Irish border was going to be the biggest stumbling block on the road to Brexit, and the party’s more extreme Brexiters are still in denial about it. But the Republic will stay in the EU, and it insists that there must be no hard border after Brexit. Ireland has seen enough killing.

No hard border is therefore an EU red line, and it’s impossible to square that with May’s decision to leave the EU customs union. If there is no customs union, then there have to be border checks. And maybe a new war in the North.

So the EU suggested a ‘backstop’. If London and Brussels can’t come up with a free-trade deal to keep the border soft (i.e. invisible), then Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union, and the rest of the UK could leave. The real border, for customs purposes, could run down the middle of the Irish Sea.

Theresa May actually signed up to this solution last December, because the only real alternative is a hostile Brexit that simply ignores the EU’s position. But no sooner had she agreed the ‘backstop’ with the EU than rebels in her own camp – extreme Brexiters and members of a small Northern Ireland-based Protestant party whose votes are all that keeps the Conservatives in power – forced her to repudiate it.

Now May’s position is pure fantasy: no customs border with the EU either on land or in the Irish Sea. Which is why the probability of a chaotic ‘no deal’ Brexit is growing daily, and the prospect of renewed war in the North is creeping closer.

Is renewed war really possible? Last year Sinn Fein, the leading Catholic party in Northern Ireland, withdrew from the ‘power-sharing’ government mandated by the Good Friday agreement. That could be seen as clearing the decks for action once it became clear that Brexit would undermine all existing arrangements in Ireland.

And if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s predicted on Tuesday, unemployment in the UK will almost double, house prices will fall by ten per cent in two years, and the British pound will fall even further. First impoverishment for the British, then war for the Irish.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“As…versa”; and “No…North”)

Brexit: No Turning Point Yet

Even with Donald Trump scheduled for a brief visit to the United Kingdom this week amid massive protests, it’s still ‘all Brexit, all of the time’ in the sceptred isle – and the long struggle over the nature of the deal that will define Britain’s relationship with the European Union post-exit allegedly reached a turning point last weekend.

“They had nothing else to offer. They had no Plan B. She faced them down,” said a senior government official about the hard-line Brexiteers after Prime Minister Theresa May got them to sign up to a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ at a crisis cabinet meeting last Friday. But the armistice between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions in her fractious Conservative Party lasted less than 48 hours.

On Sunday morning hard-line Brexiteer David Davis, the ludicrously titled Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, reneged on his short-lived support for May’s negotiating goals and resigned in protest. Then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed suit, claiming that May’s plan meant “the (Brexit) dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”

The sheer fecklessness of the ‘Brexit dream’ is epitomised by Johnson, who first compared May’s negotiating plans to “polishing a turd”, then came round to supporting them for about 36 hours, and finally resigned, saying that they would reduce the UK to a “vassal state” with the “status of a colony” of the EU. Yet at no point in the discussion did either of them offer a coherent counter-proposal.

And what is all this Sturm und Drang about? A negotiating position, devised by May with great difficulty two years after the referendum that yielded 52% support for an undefined ‘Brexit’, which could never be accepted by the European Union. Its sole virtue was that it seemed possible to unite the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ factions of the Conservative Party behind it. But the unity imposed by May broke down before the weekend was over.

All four of the great offices of state – prime minister, chancellor (finance minister), foreign secretary and home secretary (interior minister) – are now held by Conservative politicians who voted Remain in the referendum. Yet they are unable to persuade their party to accept even a ‘soft Brexit’ that preserves Britain’s existing access to its biggest trading partner, the EU.

The Brexiteers’ power lies in their implicit threat to stage a revolt that overthrows May, fatally splits the Conservative Party, and precipitates an early election that brings the Labour Party to power. They may not really have the numbers to do that – it’s widely assumed that a majority of the Conservative members of parliament secretly want a very soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – but May dares not test that assumption.

So, horrified by the prospect of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn (who is regularly portrayed by the right-wing media as a Lenin in waiting), the Conservatives are doomed to cling desperately to power even though they can probably never deliver a successful Brexit. And the time is running out.

The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March of next year whether there is a deal that maintains most of its current trade with the EU or not. In practice, the deadline for an agreement is next October, since time must be allowed for 27 other EU members to ratify the deal. If there is no deal, the UK simply ‘crashes out’, and chaos ensues.

The volume of trade in goods and services between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU is so great, and the preparation for documenting the safety and origins of goods and collecting customs on them so scanty, that the new border would simply freeze up.

That would cause great difficulty for many European enterprises, but for Britain it would be a catastrophe. As an example, two-fifths of the components for cars built in the UK are sourced from elsewhere in the EU. Yet most of the time available for negotiating a soft Brexit has already been wasted, and Britain still does not have a realistic negotiating position.

This preposterous situation is almost entirely due to the civil war within the Conservative Party between the Brexit faction the rest. The only reason that there was a referendum at all was because former prime minister David Cameron thought that a decisive defeat in a referendum would shut the Brexiteers up and end that war. He miscalculated.

The Brexiteers spun a fantasy of an oppressive EU that was the cause of all Britain’s troubles and sold it to the nostalgic older generation, the unemployed and underemployed who were looking for somebody to blame, and sundry nationalists of all colours.

They narrowly won the referendum with the help of a rabidly nationalist right-wing press, spending well beyond the legal limits in the campaign – and, it now appears, with considerable support from Russia. (The biggest contributor to the Brexit campaign, mega-rich investor Arron Banks, met the Russian ambassador at least eleven times during the run-up to the referendum and the subsequent two months.)

There’s still a chance that reason will prevail before the UK crashes out of the EU, of course. But the odds are no better than even.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“The volume…position”; and “The Brexiteers…colours”)