Outside the UK, where words apparently mean whatever you want them to, it is universally understood that in order to avoid a border on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland (and preferably the UK as a whole) needs to stay in an equivalent of the existing EU customs union, and the European Single Market. Inside the UK, on the other hand, it seems to be commonly accepted that the UK needs to leave the Single Market because it has to restrict freedom of movement.(An argument that I have never accepted, but that is another matter.)
And so we have a problem.
In fact, however, the only bit of the European Single Market that the UK really has to stay in to avoid a border is the single market for goods — this would of course require it to apply European goods standards, accept all relevant ECJ rulings, and so forth.
Quite properly, the EU is ruling out cherry picking: the UK cannot stay in the bits of the Single Market it likes, and not in others. But what if it were ourselves, rather than the British, who picked the cherries?
In particular: it would be completely unacceptable for the UK to remain in the single markets for capital and services, while excluding itself from the single market for labour. This is, we all understand, never going to happen. And I suspect that they wouldn’t be allowed to remain in the single market for goods alone, either, and that proposing this is therefore a non-starter.
But I’m going to propose it anyway, in the full knowledge that I will be (probably quite properly) shot down, since it seems to have a few things going for it.
First, we would avoid borders, not just within Ireland but more generally, and this would help businesses across the continent. Supply chains would be unaffected, and so forth.
Second, the British would not have cherry picked — something that we could never allow a mere third country to do. We Europeans would have done the picking, on the grounds that it suited us to do so; and that seems to me like an important distinction.
Third, however, the Brexiteers would be able to say to their voters that they had restricted freedom of movement.
Fourth, however, this deal would only be made available on the basis that the UK also stayed in a customs union with the EU, since that would be required to avoid borders, which is the whole purpose of the exercise. So EU politicians would be able to point out, to their own populations, that the UK (a) was unable to do its own trade deals with other countries (b) had to accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ or an equivalent, such as the EFTA court, as it affects the single market for goods (c) had been unable to cherry pick as it saw fit.
Fifth, everyone could explain to their electorates that they had had to make these compromises in order to help preserve peace in Ireland.
Sixth, Ireland would avoid a border.
This would not be a great deal for the UK. Yes, they would get the frictionless trade that they say they want, and that they can’t get outside the Single Market and a customs union with the EU. They would keep their car industry, remain in Airbus supply chains, and all the rest of it. And that ought to be something that they would welcome. But: they would lose access to the single markets for services and capital, as long as they remained outside the single market for labour. They would lose jobs and tax revenue from the City. As a service economy, this is not the deal that they would have chosen: the UK would not be better off outside the EU than it is at present. But such a deal would be a lot better for them than the rather shallow, goods-only, friction-creating FTA arrangement that the UK seems to be heading for right now (if it gets even that). And they would always have the option of going for a deeper arrangement involving all four freedoms, if they decided that that is what they wanted at a later date.