It was very disturbing to read the following last week:
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said Ireland will consider a special free trade zone with the UK if Brexit results in a complex UK split from the EU and the Single Market.
It would be legally and technically impossible for one bit of a customs union and Single Market to have such an arrangement with a third party. To achieve such an objective would require our leaving the EU.
And so I was pleased to read this morning that what the Government is actually going to look for is some sort of special status for the North so as to maintain free trade within the island no matter what the British decide. Presumably this would mean the North remaining within the EU’s customs union and/or Single Market, otherwise it won’t work. (Remember: if Britain leaves the EU’s Single Market and customs union without an interim free trade deal with the EU in place, WTO rules require tariffs on trade between Britain and the EU. This can’t be avoided. And that means tariffs on trade between the Republic and Britain. That can’t be avoided either.) I don’t know if such a thing is legally possible under EU law — though as I mentioned earlier the Kingdom of Denmark might offer a possible model — but it does seem like an option worth exploring.
Beware of weasel words however. Jeffrey Donaldson is quoted as saying that
“What we’re really looking for is a special deal for the island of Ireland which enables free movement of goods and people on the island, and preserves the institutions we’ve created under the various agreements,” Mr Donaldson said. “The people we’ll need to convince are the EU.”
Yes, keeping the North inside the EU Single Market or customs union would indeed require this being possible under EU legislation, and it would require both good will and a fair amount of technical work to make it work, if it is even a runner in the first place. (How on earth would agriculture be dealt with, for example?) But the real problem is likely to come from the UK. Mrs May’s speech over the weekend seemed to rule out a special status for Northern Ireland — I thought she was pretty explicit about this. And how would the DUP feel about the logical corollary of such a scheme, namely customs frontiers (and in all likelihood tariffs) between the island of Ireland and Britain?§ The people that we will need to convince, above all, are in London and Belfast. And let’s start by trying to convince them to remain in the customs union, at least as an interim measure, until a free trade deal can be sorted out.
(And let’s not forget: it’s London that is responsible for this mess in the first place. Why on earth did Donaldson’s party support them?)
§ Yes, a border with the Republic promises to be extremely costly for them, but I presume they also export a fair amount to Britain. One way or another, it looks as though they are in big trouble if London decides to leave the Single Market and customs union.