Friday, 8 December 2017


Today’s news about an apparent ‘breakthrough’ in talks over Brexit is better than many of us had expected, although whether it’s much more than a form of words to enable the next stage to commence remains to be seen.  The wording looks like a bit of a fudge; something which can be interpreted in more than one way in order to satisfy multiple audiences, but which will need to become a lot clearer than that over the coming months.
The statement that "the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” seems to avoid both a hard border across Ireland and the imposition of a hard border in the middle of the Irish Sea, but the devil will be lurking, as ever, in the detail.  How will they determine which areas of ‘alignment’ are the ones which support ‘North-South co-operation’, for instance? 
There was talk, in advance, of effectively remaining in the single market for some sectors but not others, but regulating that produces immense challenges.  It could mean, for example, that lorries containing agricultural produce will flow freely but those containing widgets won’t.  It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the implication of that is that those claiming to be carrying meat might just need to be checked to make sure that there are no hidden widgets – which brings us straight back to the hard border issue.  The simple, practical, cheap, and effective way of determining in which areas alignment should be maintained is not to bother – this agreement looks to me like the first step towards tearing up another of the government’s red lines and remaining in the single market.  It’ll take a few more months of drama and crisis to reach that point, though.
I thought that yesterday’s remarks by the Chancellor, that any suggestion Britain might walk away from talks without paying off its obligations to the EU was “not a credible scenario.  That is not the kind of country we are.  Frankly, it would not make us a credible partner for future international agreements” was one of his more sensible pronouncements.  The fact that he was so roundly ‘corrected’ by Number 10 within hours by a spokesperson for the Prime Minister saying that honouring our debts was “dependent on us forging that deep and special future relationship” makes it clear that reality is dawning on May only slowly, and only one step at a time.
The end state – something which the Cabinet have not even felt it necessary to discuss yet, apparently, probably because thy know that they won’t agree – looks increasingly like being membership of the single market and customs union, no independently-negotiated trade deals, a continuing role for the European Court of Justice, continuing payments to the EU’s funds, and acceptance of EU rules with no input to their drafting.  Brexit means anything but Brexit.  No wonder the Brexit ideologues are getting increasingly restless.


Anonymous said...

So, everything is turning out to be okay.

Should be a good weekend for us all!

Jonathan said...

Help me out here, Borthlas.
You say
"The end state looks increasingly like being membership of the single market and customs union, no independently-negotiated trade deals, a continuing role for the European Court of Justice, continuing payments to the EU’s funds, and acceptance of EU rules with no input to their drafting. Brexit means anything but Brexit..."
I am trying to work out how all this differs from staying in the EU.
Are you saying, with subtle irony, that we are in effect staying in?
Not quite - we don't get input into the rules.
On the other hand, there seems to be a Defence component to the negotiations. If this is true then we are weakening/replacing NATO in a way that was unthinkable to many before Brexit. (Me, I've always been keen to replace or beef up NATO with EU Armed Forces but a lot of Brits haven't been)
In other words, it seems as a result of Brexit that the UK relationship with the EU has not ended with something looser. It will morph into something closer. We'd only need a better EU democratic Constitution (+ a Welsh one) and I would be a happy Cymro indeed. Simple, Wales could plausibly join the EU as a sovereign State just as Slovenia and Slovakia did. From the ashes of old defunct States.
Or have am I getting this wrong?

John Dixon said...


It depends to a large extent on whether it is possible to maintain 'some' regulatory alignment with single market / customs union rules, and diverge on others. I tend to the view that the regulatory regime is a whole (whether coherent or not may well be a matter of judgement) and that opting out of parts over a period may well turn out to be much harder than people think. If the purpose of this 'alignment' is to avoid the need for physical border controls (and that seems to be its objective), then as soon as any rule change threatens the integrity of that market, and potentially opens up a back door to it for non-compliant goods, then border controls become necessary. It has, all along, been the desire for regulatory difference which has driven the border issue, not the Irish.

Fundamental to the position of the UK Government (and this has been the position of the Brexiteers from the outset) is the belief that it is possible to reach an agreement under which a state which declines to follow the rules of the market can still have free trade with that market, and that goods and services which do not comply with the rules of the market will, nevertheless, be given free access. I think they're just plain wrong on that, and will eventually be forced to recognise that fact, as they have been forced to recognise reality on so many other issues to date. When we get to that stage - as we surely will - then there is only one option left to the UK government which meets the terms of the 'agreement' announced this week, and that is continued membership of the single market and customs union - what is commonly known as the 'Norway option', or something very like it. That in turn requires continuing payments to the EU, an obligation to implement new EU rules without having any input to them, and clear restrictions on negotiating trade deals on an individual basis.

As you say, it amounts to staying in the EU but without any input. It's a status which makes sense for Norway only because the country's government would really like to be part of the EU, but were blocked by losing a vote in a referendum. I'm not at all sure that it's a happy position for a country which has declared that it wants to be out, and I'm absolutely certain that the Brexit ideologues will be very unhappy indeed if that turns out to be the end state. They would inevitably be asking 'what was the point?'.

As for Wales, well, I agree with your point entirely, that continued membership of the single market and customs union makes it easier for Wales to become 'independent' (accepting that there is a debate about the meaning of the word in this context), and a great deal easier for an independent Wales to be able to choose whether or not to join the EU at some future date, with no danger of erecting barriers. It would be a much better outcome for Wales than the option which the UK government has been pursuing to date, in both short term economic and long term political terms.

Anonymous said...

As far as I can see the UK Government's negotiating position is effectively - if we can agree with the EU a different relationship, we'll do that; if not, we'll do as the EU wants. As there is no incentive for the EU to agree to something different the inevitable outcome will be exactly as John has described it. We will leave the EU institutions and lose our voice in its decision making but in most other respects,it will be business as usual. Of course, there will be plenty of pressure on May to change course from sections of her own party but none of them have an answer to the Northern Ireland border issue. I would guess that few of the ardent brexiteers ever realised that it would be an issue. They live in a insular, 1950s bubble where such issues simply didn't exist.

Sprit of BME said...

Loathed as I am to engage in this issue, but your reply to my old friend Jonathan in the words “it amounts to staying in the EU, but without any input” I assume is refereeing to the UK.
Wales is currently well accustomed to this condition as we are not a member, but we have the ability to suggest to HMG in London what our wishes and concerns are. They as they sit at the power table either, reject, amend or take these on board. That is determined by the old colonial law practiced by the English in Africa of The Law of English Paramountcy, which in simple terms means, if it is a threat to English interests it is rejected and if not, it is amended and put forward as their view.
So, what’s new.