Ditch the dogma - do the deal
In the imagination of remainers, the Tory European Research Group is a cadre of irreconcilable Brexit ultras, determined to wrench the UK from the EU in chaotic fashion. It’s ironic then, that the ERG’s latest paper is one of the calmest contributions to the Irish border debate, delivering low-key, rather technical solutions to practical problems raised by the frontier, rather than overheated rhetoric.
The document draws heavily on the work of Dr Graham Gudgin, the Cambridge University academic who has examined forensically Brexit’s potential impact in Ireland at the think-tank, Policy Exchange. The audience at its publication included two former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, as well as Lord Trimble, unionist architect of the Belfast Agreement.
The ERG’s aim in writing this paper was fairly straight-forward. Come up with a set of arrangements that will avoid the need for new physical checks and infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, without compromising the integrity of the customs union or the single market and without requiring the UK or parts of the UK to remain under the auspices of Brussels.
The broader purpose is to allow the two sides in the Brexit negotiations to get round the Irish road-block and start putting together a wide-ranging free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.
Unfortunately, the document was always likely to get a hostile reception, because the border question is no longer really about solving practical problems. Northern Ireland and its peace process are being exploited shamelessly to promote competing visions of Brexit.
The European Commission’s negotiating strategy is founded on portraying Britain’s departure from the EU as a binary choice between leaving the single market and the customs union or maintaining a soft border. Theresa May assisted Brussels by offering an unilateral commitment before talks began that there would be no additional checks or technology on the Irish frontier, under any circumstances.
That has allowed Michel Barnier to maintain that, if her government insists on a meaningful Brexit, then it must agree to an internal UK border in the Irish Sea, while Northern Ireland must remain subject to the EU’s rules and customs regime.
For her part, the prime minister has used Brussels’ uncompromising stance to promote her Chequers’ plan for a diluted form of Brexit. Theresa May claims that the UK must accept a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU on goods and agriculture, in order to avoid an internal frontier. She even went so far as to say that anything that undermines a ‘seamless border’ on the island of Ireland is a “breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.”
It was particularly disappointing to hear the prime minister join the growing number of culprits who have made erroneous claims about the Good Friday deal, since the EU referendum result. The deranged peer, Lord Adonis, claimed this week that certain types of Brexit would be “illegal” under the accord. None of these people can ever cite the text to support their arguments, whereas Lord Trimble, who knows the Belfast Agreement back to front, points out that the main threat to its central ‘principle of consent’ is an Irish Sea border.
If the ERG’s document has a flaw, it’s that it takes the various arguments about Ireland at face value. It attempts to address Mr Barnier’s claims that the single market cannot be protected, unless Northern Ireland remains under its tutelage. It shows Theresa May that Chequers is not the only way to keep trade flowing freely, both north to south and east to west.
In truth, neither the Irish border nor the Belfast Agreement form an impediment to any form of Brexit. The Chequers’ proposals must stand on their own merit and be weighed against the ERG’s ideas for a looser arrangement, based on a free trade agreement. It’s time for all sides to ditch the dogma around Ireland and get on with brokering a deal.