Is no deal better than a bad deal (Irish edition)?

Of all the vacuous platitudes regularly trotted out by Brexiteers, one of the most irritating is the mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. What, exactly, would such a bad deal look like? We are never informed, making the claim “not even wrong”.

In contrast, it is pretty easy to define what a bad deal would look like, from an Irish perspective. First, and most obviously, and most importantly, it would be a deal that restored a visible border in Ireland, whether involving border guards of one sort or another, or physical border infrastructure, or both. This would undermine one of the fundamental premises of the Good Friday Agreement: that given the freedom to choose your citizenship, and without a meaningful border, it should no longer matter, very much, on which side of that border you live. The restoration of a border would therefore threaten the security of this island. A deal that allowed this would be a pretty dreadful one, by any reasonable standard.

Second, a bad deal would expose Irish agribusiness to competition from cheap overseas suppliers in the UK market. Such Anglospheric competition would severely reduce Irish exports to Britain, irrespective of whether Irish exporters faced WTO tariffs or not.

It’s pretty easy, therefore, to define what a bad deal for Ireland would look like in principle. Unfortunately, if the UK follows through on its threat to leave the EU’s Single Market, and refuses to become a member of a new EU27-UK customs union replicating the current EU28 customs union, then any deal that the EU will strike with the UK will necessarily be a bad one, thus defined. Most importantly, there will have to be a border on this island. And, since the UK will then do a variety of trade deals with the US and other countries, on the basis of an exceptionally weak bargaining position, it is highly likely that Ireland agribusiness will lose valuable markets there, even if they don’t face WTO tariffs.

So, in the Irish case, we have a meaningful definition of a bad deal, and we can therefore meaningfully pose the question of whether a bad deal would be better than no deal.

No deal would also mean a border in Ireland, and the loss of export markets consequent on the imposition of WTO tariffs. And it would involve additional economic costs, over and beyond those implied by a bad deal, of which more later. But I don’t think that you can automatically conclude that no deal would be worse for Ireland than a bad deal, mostly for political reasons.

As things stand, we have convinced our EU partners that a border in Ireland is unacceptable. The language from Barnier, Verhofstadt, Macron, and many others on the issue is exactly what we have been looking for. By signing on to a bad deal, we would be conceding the principle that a border is, in fact, acceptable. We would be saying to the EU26: “yes, we have been trying hard to convince you that a border is simply unthinkable and must never be allowed to happen, but actually, we didn’t really mean it. If push comes to shove, we’ll accept a border if that is the price that has to be paid for a deal with the UK.” If we were to take such an attitude, we could hardly expect our European partners to take the opposite one!

Once the point of principle regarding the border has been conceded, it becomes likely that the border will prove to be a permanent fixture on the island. The Brexiteers will be happy: they will be able to import as much chlorinated chicken as they want from wherever they want, and the Irish border issue will no longer be on the table to complicate matters for them. There will be no reason for the UK to ever get rid of the border, and we will have lost all leverage on the issue.

By contrast, if there is no deal, because of insufficient progress on the border issue, the point of principle will not have been conceded. Yes, there will still be a border, but there will be a border anyway under a bad deal. And the UK will know that, if it ever wants a trade deal with the largest market in the world, and its nearest neighbour, it will have to erase that border.

And I think that it is almost inevitable that the UK will, eventually, decide that it needs to have such a trade deal.** In which case the border will only have been reintroduced temporarily.

No deal will involve more economic costs for Ireland than a bad deal, and as I said in a previous post, I would like to see those additional costs quantified, taking into account the negative impact upon Ireland of the trade deals that Liam Fox is likely to sign. And it is therefore intellectually respectable to claim that a bad deal is better than no deal. But it is also intellectually respectable to argue that for Ireland, no deal is in fact better than a bad deal.

To an extent, it comes down to what our preferences are. If they are lexicographic, with the absence of a border dominating other Irish interests, then no deal is surely better than a bad deal. If, on the other hand, we are willing to accept a higher risk of the resumption of violence, in order to mitigate economic costs elsewhere on the island, then a bad deal might well be better than no deal. I think that these are issues that we need to debate, honestly, as a society.

My own view is that when things can go badly wrong, they often do, and that we should never take peace and stability for granted. I also think that the primary duty of a state is to provide security. And like everyone my age, I remember the Troubles. And so I tend to the view that we should not concede on the fundamental point of principle that has been forcefully articulated by our government and diplomatic service: a border in Ireland is simply unacceptable.

And what that means in practice, I think, is that in the months ahead — through December and if necessary beyond — we should hold our nerve, stick to our principles, and continue to insist that we need a solution to the Irish border question before the UK withdrawal talks proceed to the second stage.

** It may take time.

13 thoughts on “Is no deal better than a bad deal (Irish edition)?”

  1. Brexit is a hostile act: period.

    The U.K [and specifically deluded English Tories] has ignored the ‘These Islands’ dimension to an international treaty.

    The implicit context, and I wish it had been more explicit, to this treaty was that ALL of this Island was in the European Union and expected to remain so.

    The ‘These Islands’ dimension has yet to be in any way significantly addressed by the four civilizations impacted by this decision …. the potential consequences are both far-reaching and potentially explosive.

    The U.K. agrees, at a minimum, with the EU to remain in the Customs Union and if not ….

    NO DEAL: PERIOD.

    … and discussion within These Islands can then ensue …. over some time … as the economic consequences of this deluded decision become more apparent to the lumpen proles across These Islands …. as history has empirically demonstrated we can handle a little pain for ultimate gain.

    1. Agreed. Good article.
      I hope (as a Brit) that an inability to get an agreement on the Irish border will bring Brexit crashing down.
      But the hard Brexiteers may want WTO or bust. I hope the Irish find some legal angle ( is this the ‘These Islands’ dimension ?) to prevent it.

  2. The Irish border issue is hopefully going to be one where both the UK and EU will see merit in agreeing some compromise.

    On the goods side, there are many other issues such as component supplies to international supply chains.

    Theresa May in Florence revealed her desperation to have an agreement that is better than both the EU-Canada agreement, and an arrangement within the European Economic Area rules.

    Good luck on that!

    When the EU accounts for 44% of exports, access is important.

    Besides dissension within the government, the Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn said in an interview this morning that staying in the EU single market could stop him implementing Labour policies. When it was put to him that 66% of Labour members want to stay in the single market, he said he would listen to them. He also said he wanted tariff-free access to the single market. But he want on:

    I would also say that we need to look very carefully at the terms of any trade relationship, because at the moment we are part of the single market, obviously. That has within it restrictions on state aid and state spending. That has pressures on it, through the European Union, to privatise rail, for example, and other services. I think we have to be quite careful about the powers we need as national governments.

  3. Hi Kevin,

    One of the many problems that Brexit has unearthed is the incompatibility of the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty (a fairly fundamental principle in the British Constitution) with the version of mixed or diluted sovereignty implied by the acceptance of variable citizenship with equal rights envisaged by the GFA. The issue was always latently there, but Brexit dramatises that the UK can either respect an international treaty that made a special case of a portion of the national territory (contingent on a political process and populated by non-citizens by right) or it can respect parliamentary sovereignty. It can’t do both. A similar tension is unearthed around the relationship of the Scottish to Westminster parliaments . The UK Parliament can either respect the devolution settlement, and so a lot of competence moves to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, or it can, completely constitutionally, assert Parliamentary sovereignty and move it all to London.

    Fixing the British constitution is a task beyond even the most skilled diplomats in the Irish Foreign Service, so the best they can do is to keep the focus clearly on the EU’s role in the GFA (which transcends any economic calculation) and the simple demand that there be no border. At the very least they have to insist that all Irish citizens in Northern Ireland have the capacity to exercise all their rights, national and European. This raises the interesting possibility at some point in the future of the Irish government taking a case to the Hague to sustain some kind of social right Irish citizens may acquire by dint of being European (working hours for example) but which is not part of UK law. Imagine if all businesses in NI had to employ workers with two different sets of employment law?

    However much fun this kind of speculation is, it behoves us all to recognise that no border in Ireland means overturning a unitary sovereignty model that has been a baseline assumption of English and then British politics since Henry VIII and the Act in Restraint of Appeals (1533). Irish political culture has much more experience of confronting these kinds of complicated legal and political issues. UK politicians simply may not be aware of the implications of some international agreements and even if they are they may not understand them.

  4. Wren-Lewis makes a useful point here on Dublin’s suspect tensile strength when subjected to EU pressure …..

    He does not need to mention the 2nd Referenda, the ECB blackmail, the financial system larceny or the imposition of the nonsensical and damaging SGP [aka Angela’s corset] etc Dublin’s backbone is suspect when it comes to dealing with the semi-dictatorial Power of EU elites.

    Tactically, Sinn Fein in Government in Dublin and in Belfast would add definite leverage with both EU and UK.

    https://mainlymacro.blogspot.ie/2017/09/the-real-obstacle-for-brexit.html

    A Labour/SNP coalition in London in the near-ish future would also assist ….

  5. Would you advocate the Irish government vetoing an extension of the 2 year A50 time limit unless there is agreement that Northern Ireland will permanently remain in the customs union and/or EEA? I certainly wouldn’t. Nigel Farage would be delighted.

    What about a fudge where the UK ‘leaves’ but remains in the CU and/or EEA (perhaps with slightly different names, to accommodate Daily Mail headline writers) for a time – that time being potentially extendable to become indefinite, so the UK and therefore Northern Ireland, could remain in them permanently. Would you encourage the Irish government to torpedo this possibility?

    Have you considered how this might look to some people?

    “First, and most obviously, and most importantly, it would be a deal that restored a visible border in Ireland, whether involving border guards of one sort or another, or physical border infrastructure, or both.”

    OK.

    “…given the freedom to choose your citizenship, and without a meaningful border, it should no longer matter, very much, on which side of that border you live.”

    The border currently isn’t meaningful?

    “The restoration of a border would therefore threaten the security of this island.”

    The border doesn’t exist?

    “Most importantly, there will have to be a border on this island.”

    ??

    “As things stand, we have convinced our EU partners that a border in Ireland is unacceptable.”

    I don’t think the EU ‘partners’ – the same ones that were so popular on here a few years ago – have been convinced of quite that.

    “Once the point of principle regarding the border has been conceded, it becomes likely that the border will prove to be a permanent fixture on the island.”

    Unionists believe, and are entitled to believe, that a border will be a permanent fixture.

    “And so I tend to the view that we should not concede on the fundamental point of principle that has been forcefully articulated by our government and diplomatic service: a border in Ireland is simply unacceptable.”

    …Have they actually said that? I would expect the diplomatic service and even politicians in government to be way more careful than that with their use of language.

    1. I agree. No matter how often the point is repeated, it never registers that there is no such thing as a veto in the EU. That is why, in large measure, it has expanded from six to twenty-eight members and deepened its level of integration. Had a veto existed, paralysis would have been the result.
      The EU decides by consensus i.e. unanimity where no formal voting procedure applies, or by voting, either on the basis of unanimity or one of two versions of qualified majority voting, one stronger than the other (the former being what will apply to the conclusion, i.e. formal adoption, of whatever agreement the European Council, which acts almost exclusively on the basis of consensus, can arrive at on the Withdrawal Agreement with the UK).
      The EU leaders have a difficult call to make at their October meeting. But it would be highly unwise for any country to go into the discussion stating its own definitive view of what “sufficient progress” means in terms of moving to phase two of the negotiations and announcing a “veto”.
      Two irreconcilable positions exist as to the Border; that of the Irish government and that of the UK, if the latter insists on leaving both the single market and the customs union. In the latter case, some form of border control MUST come into existence. The two jurisdictions in Ireland will be operating under entirely separate trading and regulatory regimes.
      Of the two, not quitting the customs union creates the biggest ideological difficulties for the Tories. But the decision to remain will depend on mainland UK’s assessment of where its economic interests lie. It is clear that it is on this issue that the party is totally split. The economic arguments for quitting do not stack up. They should be allowed to win out.
      The Ulste farmers have twigged it (a bit late).They are looking for a five year transition!

      1. “That is why, in large measure, it has expanded from six to twenty-eight members and deepened its level of integration.”

        With more members comes more complexity. With more complexity comes slow stagnatation. They should have stuck at six. But that’s what overreach gets you; ‘a state of chassis!’.

        ” … the European Council, which acts almost exclusively on the basis of consensus, …”

        Consensus either is, or is not: ‘almost exclusively’ has no legal basis. Bad experiences have shown us that the EU (and the EZ) are not consensual entities. We do as they instruct, direct or command – or else! And we have done.

        The question of the nature and placement of any possible ‘border’ between the EU and the UK has most likely already been decided by D-land and F-land. The most probable locations are the existing european sea and air ports. The customs and security infrastructures are already in situ. No need for us to worry our little hearts about it. They will have a green painted doorways labelled ‘Isteach’ – all for ourselves 😉

  6. The speech by Keir Starmer at the Labour party conference. N.B. In particular the comments on the UK remaing long term in the CU.
    http://brexitcentral.com/full-text-keir-starmer-speech-labour-party-conference/
    A point that has to be underlined is that the UK cannot formally quit the EU without also formally leaving the internal market, which encapsulates both the single market (sic) and the CU. Any new arrangements maintaining participation will have to be by a separate agreement, initially via the WA and eventually in the overall final long-term deal.

  7. (This text is stuck in moderation because of the link to the actual speech. Available from brexitcentral.com).

    The speech by Keir Starmer at the Labour party conference. N.B. In particular the comments on the UK remaing long term in the CU.

    A point that has to be underlined is that the UK cannot formally quit the EU without also formally leaving the internal market, which encapsulates both the single market (sic) and the CU. Any new arrangements maintaining participation will have to be by a separate agreement, initially via the WA and eventually in the overall final long-term deal.

  8. Brendan Donnelly not too impressed with Florence

    http://fedtrust.co.uk/mrs-may-in-florence/

    It has been quite clear now for some time that The Tories are clueless and way out of their depth …. strange times … Eton et al and the Oxbridge PPEs must be dumbing down … one can now expect, imho, a move to supporting a radical social democratic Labour from many of the ‘real economy business wing’ of Tory support. Spose this could be sold as a ‘temporary little arrangement’ within the capital-labour relation ….

    English nationalism has a spot of homework to focus on ….. it’s a long old road from empire to ‘just us’ … and I have no problem with English nationalism … as long as it resides solely in a sovereign independent England and that it ceases poaching our best cricketers. Oulder and more experienced Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists are available to provide tutorial assistance from our extensive archives ….

    @BWsnr

    Ta for support on ‘tensile strength’ … any chance of giving the Tories a tutorial on the limits of a certain coefficient of friction?

  9. The art of keeping one’s mouth shut until tactical options can be evaluated to best advantage is undervalued in modern politics.

    The current UK government appears incapable offacing up to the consequences of its own actions, never mind any of the complexities of its isolationist approach to Brexit. Internally, its behavious is increasingly dysfunctional. In the frenetic struggle about who gets to ‘own’ the proverbial cake, the Conservative leadership appear hell-bent on tearing it apart and trampling the crumbs beneath their own feet. The only viable government alternative on offer is trapped in some mid-20th century time-warp in which it is possible to recreate visions of large scale state –controlled enterprises and a pseudo-protectionist industrial policy, that is if the public statements of the Labour party leadership and its framing of post-Brexit options this week are taken at face value. Let’s face it: apart from ensuring the channels of communication remain open (and civil) and routinely exposing the absurdity of the UK government’s Irish Border solutions, there’s not much else the Irish government can say, or do.

    As for our own position within the EU 27, it’s important not to get too distracted by visions of a future EU, as variously articulated by the Commission President, Mr. Juncker; the French President or the European Parliament’s Brexit Co-ordinator, important and all as this debate may be in the longer term. The priority for our Government is to maintain a focus on the Brexit negotiations and on securing alliances with like-minded states, whose interests, like ours, will be adversely affected by the UK’s exit. Nobody wins from Brexit. The Government’s priority task is to ensure the best possible outcomes for Ireland, as a country and, in the interests of peace and security, as an all-island community.

    Our political culture is traditionally adversarial – as in the UK – but we’ve been long enough attached to the European Union to appreciate alternative styles of doing business. Further, our position as regards Brexit is not comparable to our situation in respect of the bailout. It is a misreading of our relationship with Europe over the past 40 years to suggest that the Irish always ‘cave in’ when our position comes under pressure. In the current Brexit scenario, one way or another, every member state stands to lose as a consequence of the UK’s departure from the Treaties. The status of the EU as a transnational entity hangs in the balance. Economically, we stand to lose most of all from the impact of Brexit – at least in the short-term – but politically , we command the attention of our fellow member states. The soft power opportunities that go with that should not be underestimated.

    Meanwhile, the Boeing – Bombardier development this week may be indicative of things to come. The UK government appears dumbstruck in the wake of it, at least for the present. The risk to 4,000 jobs in Northern Ireland, and to possibly four times as many more throughout the rest of the UK, is something of a test of the so-called UK ‘special relationship’ with the US, a designation which originates in the Cold War era and which might now usefully be accorded a decent burial. The continuing disarray in post peace process Northern Irish politics doesn’t help much either, but in that context the Irish Government is not compromised by association with either of the main political factions. Conventional myths and political fictions are tested; as are our own government’s political and diplomatic skills.

    Interesting blog on Boeing-Bombardier-Brexit available here:
    https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/uktpo/2017/09/27/boeing-bombardier-and-brexit/

Comments are closed.