Chequers. Backstop. Canada. Canada-plus. Free movement. Single Market. Customs union. Common Rulebook. Irish Border. Max Fac.
The interminable to-ing and fro-ing over Britain’s ultimate deal with the EU drags incessantly on, baffling all but the most anorakish of pundits and hacks.
The most important foreign policy negotiation since Suez is, in fairness, insanely complicated. One of the driest of political topics – trade – has perversely come to dominate our political discourse. Newspapers are investing endless column inches on explaining the Brexit dictionary of terms, and the coffee shops of London buzz with talk of tariffs, customs and WTO rules. Michel Barnier is probably a name more widely known than Alistair Cook, the cricketer.
One is reminded – well I am – of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s account of 4th Century Constantinople. If you bought a loaf of bread in the marketplace, you’d be faced with a discursion on the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Here, I’ll try to clear things up a bit. The truth is that things are being made much more complex than they needed to be – and they have been deliberately made and kept that way by the rival players in this infernal game.
In the furore over the so-called Chequers plan (a compromise proposal by the prime minister that would see a large degree of regulatory alignment between the UK and EU but also reduce our trade independence), a sensible way forward is being neglected.
Sign up for the Week in Review Email
Every Sunday: Read the week’s most read articles, watch Iain Martin’s Authors in Conversation series, listen to The Reaction podcast & receive new offers and invites.
The deal supported by the so-called “hard Brexiteers” – Leave-supporting Tories such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who seek a clean break with the Single Market and customs union – is sensible and it is a deal similar to that enjoyed by Canada. This Free Trade Agreement (FTA) allows tariff-free movement of goods and a mutual recognition of standards, so products produced in Canada can automatically be recognised as fit for sale in the EU.
At the same time, Canada is not tied to following EU rules on goods itself; it has the freedom to set its own standards. However, somehow the idea has caught on in the media that the Canada idea is a fantasy, supported only by right-wing loons or, to use anti-Brexit campaigner and ex-politician George Osborne’s phrase, the headbangers.
This isn’t correct. It’s an under-reported fact that Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, and Rees-Mogg, leader of the European Research Group, get along better than do Barnier and the prime minister, and their trade objectives have more in common to boot. Although the idea has been ignored by the British government, Barnier has expressed his happiness with a Canada-style deal, even suggesting that a more tailored arrangement covering some services could be possible too.
This would please the Brexiteer wing of the party whose current mascot, Boris Johnson, unleashed a broadside against the Prime Minister in today’s Daily Telegraph, lambasting a proposal to keep Northern Ireland in a form of customs union as a temporary sticking-plaster while the border issue can be worked out.
Moreover, a Canada-style deal would delight the Tory grassroots, fulfill the referendum promises, and strip Johnson of one of his most attractive credentials – namely, his claim to embody the true spirit of Brexit in the face of government equivocation and betrayal of the electorate.
What is to stop a Canada-style arrangement? In short, politics. The Brexit fiasco is characterised not by a sane, level-headed pursuit of a deal, but by the sectional interests of Westminster factioneers seeking to profit from the rubble of a bungled deal. In this negotiation economics is nothing – politics, everything.
Theresa May won’t countenance the Canada model as it threatens to create a so-called ‘hard border’ (in reality a system of customs checks) between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Why does she care about this?
One answer could be her sincere desire to preserve the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. However, this explanation does not fly. The Times reports today that the EU is willing to compromise on the nature of customs checks, using advanced labelling methods and trusted trader schemes to ensure goods coming from the UK to Ireland are compliant, should Northern Ireland remain in the customs union.
This would mean that neither a north-south ‘hard border’ nor a customs border in the Irish Sea would be necessary. But if technology and point of departure controls can be used for goods coming from the UK to a customs union territory, why could the reverse not be deployed? If these methods are good enough to check compliance in one direction, couldn’t they just as easily check compliance of goods coming from Northern Ireland to the Republic if the North left the customs union with the rest of the UK?
The answer is yes. In fact, this would be the exact plan the ERG released last week, which was roundly laughed at. Ironically, today the EU is proposing something logically the same as the sneered at ‘Max Fac’ scheme
The real problem is that May’s working majority is reliant on the votes of the Democratic Unionists – the largest Northern Irish party – who will not countenance a customs border, fearing for Northern Ireland’s future in the Union. Any checks at all between Northern Ireland and the Republic could unsettle Irish Republicans, potentially re-stoking the conflict and putting Northern Ireland’s future back in the balance. Without DUP votes, May cannot get her deal – or any legislation at all – through Parliament, unless Labour changes its tune.
What about Barnier? He has expressly ruled out the so-called ‘backstop’ plan (keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union for the time being) being extended to the rest of the UK, as this would allow the UK to behave as though it were a Single Market member without accepting free movement of people.
In truth, the Chequers proposal is not so much different from the expanded “backstop” idea; it just uses different language. The proposed “Common rule book” that May wants to adopt is effectively Newspeak for full regulatory alignment, binding the UK to EU rules.
Although Chequers is slightly more likely to stick in the upcoming Salzburg summit than the backstop, since its language does not appear quite so clearly to undermine the Single Market, the fact is there’s little material difference between the two proposals. Yet, again for political reasons, our government thinks one will be accepted even when an almost identical idea is rejected out of hand. It’s a game of words, not of substance.
Once again, political considerations dominate: Barnier cannot be seen to be offering the equivalent benefits of EU membership without Britain accepting free movement of people, even if this would be in the EU’s own economic interests. Why? Well, if Britain were allowed full access to the Single Market simply by harmonising its regulations, other countries might start asking why they can’t have this access too. More frighteningly still for Brussels, existing EU member states, struggling with immigration numbers and witnessing the rise of far-right parties in their own parliaments, might start looking at the UK and thinking the route taken looks pretty attractive.
What about Labour? Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Thornberry and co. have declared out of hand that they will refuse to back any deal no matter what it is. Once again, Labour is completely preoccupied with partisan concerns. The party cannot backslide on Brexit altogether without its bridges with its northern, working-class, Leave-voting base being burned once and for all. Not wishing to betray the referendum result, Labour backed Brexit in its 2017 manifesto, lest they face electoral Armageddon.
Since then, Labour has effectively positioned itself over the last year as the party of soft Brexit – that is to say, Single Market and customs union membership at any cost. The mind-boggling thing is that Chequers would pretty much give them that; in fact the Chequers deal, in a blind tasting, would look to most political analysts like a Labour proposal, not a Tory one.
So what’s wrong with it? Why can’t Labour back Chequers? The last thing Labour wants to see is a successful deal that keeps Theresa May in No. 10, staves off a Tory civil war, and allows the Conservatives to regroup, ready for the next general election post-March with Brexit out the way and a fresh leader.
What Labour hopes for is a disastrous exit deal or No Deal scenario that causes the Tories to implode. The resultant economic tremors and Tory infighting could see a resurgent Labour emerge, with Corbyn able to play PM in-waiting, they hope. A failed Brexit negotiation could force the government to go back to the country, weakened and humiliated. Unsullied by taking any particular position (or responsibility) on Brexit, Labour would look positively professional next to one of the most incompetent administrations in UK history.
Beyond the political mess, getting Brexit right is vital. Jacob Rees-Mogg and his team of hard Brexiteers may look as though they’re holding the country to ransom, pushing in a direction for which there isn’t a mandate.
But Rees-Mogg and the ERG are the ones offering the only deal that the EU is likely to accept – whether it’s a backstop or Chequers, the EU won’t blink on the doctrine of the Single Market. It has started to give way on the Irish border, and this offer must be grasped.
In contrast, the two front-benches are playing a Brexit game in which May will do whatever is necessary to command the Commons while Labour hovers over the nuclear button ready to try to kill the botched deal when it comes to Parliament. It’s Rees-Mogg and the ERG trying to get a sensible deal.