What could the UK say on the border before getting to the second stage?

You sometimes hear the British say that they can’t make progress on the border before getting to the second stage of talks. While superficially plausible, the claim strikes me as disingenuous: there are surely several things that they could say right now that would make a lot of difference. For example, they could pledge that

  1. The United Kingdom will remain in an equivalent of the customs union and the single market, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
  2. Northern Ireland will remain in an equivalent of the customs union and the single market, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
  3. They will change their red lines regarding the nature of their exit from the EU and their future relationship with it, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border

As I think about it though, perhaps the key thing they should say is that (a) they accept that a customs union is defined as a group of countries surrounded by a common external tariff barrier and border; (b) that in addition, the European Single Market has always been and needs to be protected by an external border of some sort in order to maintain its product standards and so forth; (c) that they accept that Ireland will remain a full member of the EU, and hence of its customs union and single market; and (d) that there will therefore continue to be a border between Ireland and all third countries or regions not belonging to the European Single Market and a customs union with the EU.

None of these points is a matter of opinion, or subject to negotiation. (1) to (3) are a matter of fact or definition, and (4) is a logical consequence of (1)-(3). And it is very difficult to accept that you are negotiating with someone in good faith if they refuse to accept that black is not white and that 2 + 2 = 4. Right now the UK seems to most outsiders to be talking out of both corners of its mouth, claiming it doesn’t want an Irish border, while preparing to do things that will require one. How can you negotiate seriously with such a country?

If the UK were to accept (1) through (4), publicly, then its claim to want to avoid a hard border in Ireland — including any physical infrastructure, something that Mrs May very helpfully added in Florence — would sound rather different. (Right now, it sounds like hypocritical posturing.) Publicly accepting (1) through (4), and saying that they were willing to do whatever it takes to avoid a hard border, involving any sort of physical infrastructure, would mark a big step forward in my opinion. And it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.

 

15 thoughts on “What could the UK say on the border before getting to the second stage?”

  1. It needs to be made clear that the term “single market” is a title of convenience and represents, essentially, the carve out of the internal market contained in the relevant texts of the EEA. Article 26.2 TFEU (ex. Article 14 TEC) states that “the internal market shall comprise an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of the Treaties”.
    The last eight words are what distinguishes the internal market from the single market (sic). One could argue that it IS the EU in terms of its essential foundation.
    What is at issue is the continued participation of the UK, as a non-member of the EU, in the activities covered by the internal market, including, for example, agriculture and fisheries; and the customs union which forms a part of it. Also many of the other policies that are an adjunct to it, notably the environment, research etc.
    The UK request for a form of transition brings the distinction into focus. The process of negotiation looks increasingly like being the end destination. It is just politically impossible, at this juncture, for the Conservatives to concede that the UK cannot afford not to participate in the single market (sic) and the customs union. Labour seem close to doing so.

  2. They can’t accept those things because they can’t deliver them. The DUP will never allow special status for NI and they hold the balance of power. Tory backbenchers will never allow the UK to remain in the single market or customs union, let alone both. May would be gone in days if she tried that.

    If the EU is unwilling to compromise then there will be no deal unless there is a change of government.

      1. A transition period is needed because neither Britain nor the EU will be prepared for a cliff edge in 2019. The Tories are still in denial about EU red lines and think that they have the upper hand in the negotiationsso they don’t realise that this is all a farce. The fired civil servants who told then differently.

  3. The U.K. lacks a reliable singular voice at the mo … Cameron has walked it into a complex ‘no-man’s land’ but without the foresight to locate and bring a map … The Tories are presently tangled in its barbed wire and are supremely stuck going nowhere with rapidly diminishing credibility … this must rank roight up there with The Charge of The Light Brigade …

    As Genghis Khan put it many moons ago:

    Only a fool goes into a battle she knows she cannot win.

    I’m waiting for Godot and Jeremy … with the latter hopefully arriving first …

    1. Not sure I’d place so much reliance on Jeremy. There’s a strong Brexiteer streak in the Labour Party among those who see the EU as a profoundly corporatist entity antithetical to the aims of the Left. Whatever emerges from the appalling mess the UK has got itself into, it will be sub-optimal for the UK and therefore probably also for Ireland. The best hope for a relatively clean resolution is to wait 20 or 30 years post-exit till the negative effects of being outside the EU really come home for our British cousins. Changes in demography over that period may also help. The two effects combined might lead to a an application to rejoin.

      The central implication of this position is that the sooner and harder the UK drops out of the EU, the sooner it’ll understand the monumental scale of its folly.

  4. Actually it would be a lot to ask for the Conservative Party to tell the UK electorate that the whole thing is going to revolve around a border most politicians and political journalists had forgotten about until after the Brexit referendum and was never brought up in a meaningful way by the absolutely pathetic remain campaign.

    The UK government’s position is as credible as the Irish flirtation with playing hardball with the ECB while simultaneously guaranteeing voters there could be no threat to the Croke Park agreement. To outsiders it looks ridiculous.

    At some point the UK electorate is very likely to wake up to just how stupid their politicians have been. Europe’s strategy should be to facilitate sufficient time for that to occur.

    For the quality of the ‘thinking’ among Brexit’s intellectual enablers try this:

    “No cliff edge
    By JOHNREDWOOD | Published: OCTOBER 3, 2017
    I have now read through all the submissions about what we need to prepare to have a smooth Brexit with No Deal.

    Most of the worries are ones which have been argued over and discussed endlessly. In many cases I dealt with these worries on this blog before the referendum. Most are general in nature.

    I will summarise my response to these old issues below:

    …….
    …….

    How can there be a smooth Irish border?

    The UK government has issued a paper on this setting out how. If the EU does not like the UK proposal it needs to make a counter proposal, as its member state the Republic of Ireland is keen on a smooth border continuing ,as is the UK.”

    …..

    Simples, no!!!

    1. ‘At some point the UK electorate is very likely to wake up to just how stupid their politicians have been. Europe’s strategy should be to facilitate sufficient time for that to occur.’

      I take ‘stupid’ here not to mean simply ‘of low intelligence’, but mostly to mean ‘ill-educated, ill-informed and misled’. You may have intended otherwise, but on my reading, I would say that while some British politicians are undoubtedly stupid, most seem to understand the appalling effects of leaving the EU. The really serious-scale ‘stupidity’ has been among the British electorate, rather than the politicians. The sheer lack of understanding of the issues among large sections of the electorate is absolutely astonishing. The result is a lot of ‘Remain’ politicians who feel honour bound to ‘respect the result of the referendum’. The situation reflects the comment attributed to J P Juncker (I paraphrase): we know what we have to do, we just can’t figure out how to get elected again after we do it.

      As I noted in an earlier comment, it’s going to take years for the more ‘stupid’ elements in the UK electorate to get the message that being out of the EU is bad for them. By then, the country will have suffered quite a bit. Sadly, they’re inflicting suffering on us too. I note a considerable emerging resentment in Europe to the posturing and preening of the Brexiteers. It will take a long time before the UK is forgiven for this.

      1. “You may have intended otherwise, but on my reading, I would say that while some British politicians are undoubtedly stupid, most seem to understand the appalling effects of leaving the EU. The really serious-scale ‘stupidity’ has been among the British electorate, rather than the politicians.”

        No, you can’t apply the same expectations to on one hand professional politicians and their hangers-on, and on the other, ordinary people who vote. The latter know very very little about many complex subjects (eg international trade and economics) – they have other things to do – and rely on leadership from opinion-formers like politicians and the press. The UK electorate has been manipulated and conditioned for decades to take little to no interest in the EU by many opinion-formers. They know even less than most other European electorates as a result.

        The stupidity is an intellectually lazy ideological obsession among many right wingers in politics and the press in the UK combined with a determination to not bother thinking through the consequences. That itself stems from the fact that leaving the EU was always really just a rallying cry for a significant group of Tories – it was never expected to happen, it was just something to whinge about.

        That’s why none of it was thought out and why they don’t want to know about pesky things like details and facts now.

        Many ordinary voters don’t understand that – why would they! They assume these posh sounding, expensively educated professionals know and understand what they are doing.

  5. The breaking story this morning is the leaked Revenue Commissioner’s paper on (i) the impossibility of avoiding a hard border if the UK leaves the customs union and (ii) the associated enormous increase in bureaucracy and costs if this comes about.
    But the real action is elsewhere. If the UK leaves, it will create the same problems for itself at all its external borders.
    The request for a period of transition changes the negotiating situation. It shows that the British or, rather, the Conservative party, tactic, of “money in return for single market access” is not founded in reality. May must concede on the principle enunciated by Barnier on liabilities if she is to make any progress at the October European Council i.e. that the EU27 would agree to talk about a transition as part of the discussions on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). Had she the wit, she could easily sell her action as a win as there is a dawning realisation – on both sides of the negotiation – that a transition is a sine qua non for an “orderly” Brexit.
    It is very likely, it seems to me, that the outcome of this process of negotiation will become the permanent result; with a different label stamped on it.
    The question is; has she the wit? The answer, it seems to me, is no. But she is being pushed in that direction by the entire apparatus of state in UK (not including David Davis who is clearly more interested in his – mistaken – leadership ambitions; which explains why the ball is being taken away from him).

    1. Indeed, it seems highly likely that the UK will end up with an arrangement that looks awfully similar to its current arrangement, but will be rather less advantageous to it. But the damage it is doing to itself will endure and its reputation as a trading and investment partner will take years to recover. On balance, most of the the indicators I see support an interpretation that it is continuing its long-term decline (over a century now and still counting). In an age of high-skill economies, Britain’s persistent inability to educate the great mass of its people to international standards undermines every effort to improve its performance. Brexit is like a last desperate effort to arrest that decline, which is entirely a problem of its own making, but makes the fatal error of blaming someone else for it. Brexit seems certain only to accelerate the decline. A nation that cannot take an honest, objective look at itself and then do something about what it sees, is in serious trouble.

  6. I’m perplexed by some of the commentary. If its correct that the UK has been in a slow, steady economic decline for the last three, possibly four, decades – then will leaving the EU make things all that much worse? And is the EU itself in such good economic shape that when (if?) the UK leaves then the overall EU economy will improve?

    The current consensus seems to suggest that the economies of France, Italy and Spain are not actually growing at the essential rate-of-growth of 3% p/a (compounding) required. Germany seems to be wobbling along at between 1% and 2%. This level of economic epansion is not sufficient. The remaining EU member states may be in worse economic shape – but its hard to confirm this.

    As regards this ‘border’ thing: you either have one or you do not. You cannot have “a little bit of a border”. I’d be of the opinion that the construction and maintenance of a real, hard EU border along the entire frontier line between Ireland and the UK would be a massive annual expense for the EU to fund. So by whom (or how) would such a hard border be financed? Yeah, I thought so. So where is the obvious location for a ‘hard UK-EU border’ – assuming that is what eventuates? Yep! Its already in place.

    The UK may have its Brexit problems – but we have our own, and they are getting more complex and more intractable.

    Is there something about not tossing stones when your inside a glasshouse? Or not increasing complexity beyond what is necessary? Children learn their lessons. Adults neither learn nor remember theirs.

  7. Why cant we blame the electorate? They didnt bother, en mass, to inform themselves. They have for decades , via revealed preferences, preferred the redtops and hatemongering tabloids to anything resembling rational news outlets; they have tolerated a winner take all electoral system; and so on and so forth.
    Democracy in the C21 is not a passive act. It requires involvement. Disengage, outsource thinking to the noisome Dacre and others, and you get this. Well, let them wallow in it. If it were not for the damage, tolerable and containable as it may be, that it will cause to this and other states, I suspect most in the EU27 would smile.
    Lincoln stated it well : “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
    Let them sit, and wail I say. There is a post imperial bluster and boorishness not deep in many of the english. Such cultural traits usually require national calamities to be moved. While Brexit isnt a national calamity, it might just serve to remind that Brittania neither rules the waves nor will it have rules waived for it.

    1. “Why can’t we blame the electorate? They didn’t bother, en mass, to inform themselves. They have for decades, via revealed preferences, …”

      We cannot blame the ‘electorate’. We must assign responsibility to individuals – or perhaps not, in this, the era of the i(diot)Phone, SnapChat, YouTube, Facebook, etc., etc.

      “Its not what the crowd believes. Its what the crowd believes that the crowd believes.” (I cannot recall the attribution for this quote).

      This flock-like behaviour can hardly be classified (in econ speak) as a set of ‘revealed preferences’. Its revealing, sure: but that’s it. The explanation for the apparently mindless, collective behaviours of humans in large groups or populations has been described in detail: its both depressing and alarming. Genie out-of-the bottle stuff.

      As for this ‘border’ thingy – our Revenue Service seems to have nailed it (metaphorically and practically); and to-morrow being B-Day, and all. Bit of an inconvenient Crucifixion?

  8. All the talk this AM is of May squaring up to th EU saying the Florence speech is the last offer. This if held to pushes a cliff edge chaotic Brexit to the front. What’s the border situation then if we have no transition, no deal?

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