What if it was the Europeans picking the cherries?

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.

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.


Europe, Ireland, and taxes

The recent German election reminded us that we should never get too excited when a European Commission President, or even a French President, makes a speech about the future of Europe. Ultimately, that future will depend on the decisions of 27 democratically elected governments, including our own, and that will probably continue to slow moves towards deeper integration.

Nonetheless, here are some scattered thoughts on the tax issue, since it is in the news these days. The good news is that Ireland doesn’t have to do anything on taxes that it doesn’t want to. On the other hand, it might be prudent for us to have more to say on the issue than “No, no, no”. If we don’t get pro-actively involved in these (and other) debates, we can hardly blame others for setting the political agenda.

I take it that the core Irish interest is maintaining the right to set our own corporate profits tax rate (and other internal taxes, perhaps, such as labour taxes). If so, then as others have said, it surely makes sense to focus on that core interest and not facilitate schemes that help companies pay less than that — and the good news is that we have been moving in this direction in recent years, notably via the OECD, something that is not sufficiently appreciated by the foreign press.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about, since others have done so. Here are some further scattered thoughts on taxes, in the hope of sparking debate.

  1. If a US firm sets up an Irish branch and makes something physical which is sold abroad, we wouldn’t object, and nor should we, if that something were to be subjected to local sales taxes in France (say). (Yes, I know that in the EU we have VAT rather than “sales taxes”…) What matters to us, and the firm, is that the profits arising from this sale are taxed in Ireland. Does it not follow that we should be relaxed about, and probably even actively encourage, a situation where if (say) Amazon.fr sells something in France that would normally be subject to French sales tax, that transaction is taxed accordingly? There were moves in that direction in 2015, but if more is needed to ensure a level playing field as between the online giants and local retailers, why would we object? In the US, Amazon customers are now paying state sales taxes in several states. The two key principles ought to be that (1) there be no discrimination between online and high street retailers, and no discrimination against US online companies; and (2) that we keep clear the distinctions between sales or revenue taxes, on the one hand, and profits taxes on the other. If Amazon and the rest paid taxes on their French sales revenues, in France, similar to what was paid by French online and high street retailers, might this not defuse a huge amount of political tension? And would that not be good for Ireland?
  2. Some Europe-wide taxes would surely be in Ireland’s interest. In particular: I’m not a fan of EMU, but since we’re in it we have an interest in making it work as well as possible. We would have saved many billions of euros during the crash if EMU had been a proper monetary union, involving a proper banking union — so anything that moves EMU in a US-style-monetary-union direction, with a common bank deposit guarantee, and a common fiscal backstop, should be welcomed by us. Especially if our financial sector is going to grow because of Brexit. But bank deposit guarantees and fiscal backstops will require common financing, presumably by the Eurozone taxing the financial sector somehow. That would be good for us, not bad for us.
  3. More speculatively: I and many others more eminent than myself have argued that if you really want a monetary union, some sort of fiscal smoothing mechanism would help it function better. If we hadn’t had to impose quite so much fiscal austerity on the economy at the worst possible point in the economic cycle, that would surely have been a good thing for us. Now, I don’t think that such a fiscal smoothing mechanism is on the cards at all, but if it were, it would require some sort of common tax base that would then finance transfers of some sort to countries in difficulty (by reinsuring their unemployment benefit systems, or whatever). Perhaps a common corporate tax might form one part of that common tax base. But that common tax wouldn’t mean that state corporate taxes would have to be harmonized, any more than the federal corporate profits tax rate in the US means that state corporate taxes there are harmonized. Indeed, I guess that once a common “federal” tax was in place, political pressure to harmonize state taxes would be difficult to sustain.
  4. As I said before, that last argument is extremely hypothetical, since I don’t think we have any hope of achieving a fiscal union in the Eurozone. (Nor do I think that the Euro is inevitably going to last forever.) But let me make a further point in that regard. There is indeed a logical argument to the effect that monetary union means that you need some sort of Eurozone-wide tax base (but only in the context of a proper US-style fiscal system for smoothing regional shocks). But there is no logical argument that I can think of that says that monetary union requires that state-level taxes be harmonized. This is an important distinction which policy-makers in France, Ireland, and elsewhere should remember.

In conclusion, my suggestion is that by making such logical distinctions, and by being clear about what are our core interests, versus those that are merely peripheral, we may be able to avoid being perceived as the DUP of European fiscal policy.

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.

The case for pessimism: out of date?

The great advantage of a blog like this from my point of view is that it provides me with an archive of things I have written and said over the years that don’t end up on my cv. And so this is a post written primarily for my own benefit, linking to an article I wrote for the Irish Mail on Sunday in the week after the UK triggered Article 50 (there wasn’t an online version available at the time).

I was pretty pessimistic back in April — perhaps overly so. Since I was focusing on the British side, how could I not have been?  On the other hand, if I were writing the piece today I would place less stress on the economics, and more on the politics of the Border. That greatly limits the range of acceptable outcomes — but who is to say that the Irish government won’t succeed in its efforts? The recent EU paper on the subject is gratifyingly hardline in its approach to the issue: the language relating to avoiding “a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure” is exactly what we would have wanted, and has probably not been sufficiently commented-upon in Britain, ruling out as it does the Canada-US and Norway-Sweden options that some Brexiteers seem so keen on.

Since time is running out, and bespoke transitional arrangements are even less obtainable than they were a year ago, the most plausible and realistic way for the UK to avoid a cliff-edge would seem to be a transition involving the status quo, more or less.* That would kick the border issue into touch for a couple more years: and once we get to that stage, who knows what might eventually happen?

*Although I do still think that the cliff is a possibility, for the reasons stated in that column or here (sorry, more self-archiving).

Could Ireland credibly threaten to veto an EU-UK trade deal?

For years now, Ireland and the UK have been the best of friends. Very sadly, Brexit is placing the relationship under strain. The positions of the two governments on the Irish border could not be further apart. Ireland is very clear: no trade deal that involves a physical border is acceptable. That obviously implies that the United Kingdom should seek to remain within the European Economic Area, and form a new customs union with the EU.  This would replicate its existing trade ties with the bloc, while respecting the vote to leave the EU, and avoid the need for a border within Ireland. The United Kingdom, on its part, is adamant that it must leave the customs union in order to strike separate trade deals with the United States and other countries overseas.  To be sure, it pays lip service to the importance of avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but this appears to be nothing more than a cynical manoeuvre. On the one hand, the magical unrealist tendency within the British government appears to think that by talking up the border issue, they can undermine the EU customs union, which has been defined by a common external tariff barrier since the 1950s. This would allow the UK to have its cake and eat it. On the other hand, the lip service will, they hope, allow the UK to place the blame for the consequences of its own decisions on Ireland and the rest of the EU.

What, if anything, can Ireland do?  As has been noted recently, the country is not powerless. While the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU will be decided by qualified majority vote, Ireland does have a potential veto in at least two possibly relevant circumstances. First, it would have a veto should the UK seek to extend the two-year deadline for exit following its Article 50 notification.  Second, and probably more to the point, if as seems likely the UK ultimately seeks an ambitious, “mixed” trade deal with the EU that includes provisions on, for example, investment, Ireland will have a veto on that as well.

The UK therefore has the power to give Ireland something that we want: the maintenance of a border-free Ireland. There are encouraging signs that some in Britain may now be moving in that direction, but they are not currently the ones driving British policy. And down the line, Ireland will have the power to deny the UK something that it wants: a trade deal with the EU that goes beyond tariff-free trade in goods, and includes the kinds of provisions on portfolio investment that would be of interest to the City. The question therefore is: can Ireland credibly threaten to use this power in an attempt to prevent the reimposition of a border on our island? Continue reading “Could Ireland credibly threaten to veto an EU-UK trade deal?”