Books Upstairs is very kindly hosting myself and Paul Gillespie at 6.30 pm on Thursday 28th February. We will be discussing my book, and no doubt the latest state of play as well. Space is limited, so those interested should email email@example.com to reserve a place.
CHAPTER 8: BREXIT
- Young (1999), p. 483.
- The speech is available at https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/113686.
- Young (1999), p. 479.
- Grob-Fitzgibbon (2016), pp. 438–9.
- The speech itself, as well as a superbly useful range of accompanying documents, is available at https://www.margaretthatcher.org/archive/Bruges.asp.
- Young (1999), p. 423.
- Grob-Fitzgibbon (2016), p. 451.
- Grob-Fitzgibbon (2016), p. 453; https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1990/09/27/the-chequers-affair/.
- A reference presumably to the European Commission’s Commissioners.
- Cited in Seldon and Collings (2000).
- Young (1999), p. 362.
- Young (1999), p. 433.
- I have put the word ‘victory’ in inverted commas to highlight the way in which much of the British political class and media have traditionally portrayed EU negotiations in terms of victory and defeat, rather than compromise and mutual benefit.
- The origins of these numbers, which seem arbitrary, are murky. On one account the 3 per cent figure is, like VAT, a gift from France to the world: see https://www.latribune.fr/opinions/tribunes/20101001trib000554871/ a-l-origine-du-deficit-a-3-du-pib-une-invention-100-francaise.html.
- Which is why I and 38 other Irish citizens were able to stand for election in the French municipal elections of 2014. And it should be noted that there were also 389 British candidates; see http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/le-scan/decryptages/2014/03/19/25003-20140319ARTFIG00358-d-o-viennent-les-candidats-etrangers-aux-municipales.php.
- See Eichengreen and Wyplosz (1993) for a detailed account of the EMS crisis of 1992–3. Like all the Brookings Papers it is freely available online at https://www.brookings.edu/project/brookings-papers-on-economic-activity/.
- Young (1999), p. 369.
- Both statements are equally true of the Clinton years.
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37550629. 23. Shipman (2017), p. 6.
- Kenny and Pearce (2018). 25. Ibid., pp. 131, 145.
- Shipman (2017), p. 7.
- Ibid., p. 8.
- Delors’s statement is available at https://core.ac.uk/display/76794060; the quotations in the text are taken from pp. 17–18.
- Gstöhl (1994).
- Shipman (2017), p. 15.
- Available at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/21787/0216-euco-conclusions.pdf.
- Shipman (2017), pp. 588–9.
- See O’Toole (2018).
- See for example https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/boris-johnson-european-union-hitler-1.3583108.
- Although I was a member of the Centre for European Reform’s Commission on the UK and the Single Market, I declined to sign a resultant letter to the newspapers on what the UK ought to do, as well as similar subsequent efforts, for two reasons. First, I’m not British, and I know from the Irish experience how irritating it is to have foreigners telling you what to do at times like this. And second, it wasn’t at all clear to me that economists’ letters were particularly helpful. On that score at least, I think I was (unfortunately) right.
- The statement led to a sharp rise in the British pound and a bigger subsequent collapse, all of which helped certain lucky investors to make a lot of money (Shipman 2017, pp. 432–4).
Many of the sources cited in A Short History of Brexit, particularly in the later chapters, are freely available on the internet. I am reproducing the book’s endnotes here so that these can be easily accessed by interested readers.
This post lists the notes for chapters up to and including Chapter 7. The notes for Chapters 8-11 and the Envoi are available here.
I have just published a short history of Brexit. In the latter chapters, dealing with the Single Market, Brexit, and the subsequent negotiations, a lot of the (mainly official) sources used are freely available online. In order to make it easier for the interested reader to consult these sources, and find out more about the EU and Brexit, I am reproducing the endnotes below.
Cher lecteur, chère lectrice: veuillez trouver ci-dessous, comme promis dans mon livre, les notes de bas de page. J’espère que cela facilitera ceux et celles qui souhaitent approfondir encore davantage leur connaissances sur l’Union européenne, le Brexit et les négociations sur le Brexit. A ce jour les liens fonctionnent tous, mais si vous trouvez des erreurs faites-le moi savoir et je ferai le nécessaire.
I thought I’d take a break from Brexit and Trump, and write a Critical Quarterly column about the Euro for a change. The main point I take from it now, a few months after writing it, is that we should stop teaching our students that if a currency union faces shocks that are symmetric, rather than asymmetric, then there is no problem. The post-2008 experience teaches us that free rider problems and ideology can lead to very sub-optimal responses even to symmetric shocks.
I am reading Hugo Young’s wonderful This Blessed Plot (is it really possible that it is out of print? How could that possibly be?). He agrees that de Gaulle behaved “monstrously” in vetoing the UK application to join the EEC in 1963, but also makes a good case that Macmillan deserves a share of the blame too. Macmillan’s approach to the negotiations was “conditional and tentative, creeping in a state of high suspicion towards this moment of historic destiny”; the UK made it clear that it wanted to “unpick” the Treaty of Rome in certain ways and wasn’t “necessarily willing to accept the acquis communautaire” — although it was offering nothing in compensation for this. Macmillan went out of his way to emphasize the fact that the Commonwealth and the UK’s relationship with the US were central concerns for him, strengthening de Gaulle’s view that the UK did not really belong in the EEC. Nor did the UK show any great enthusiasm for joining that organisation, in case this might weaken its bargaining hand. All of this merely served to strengthen European suspicions about the UK, and not only in France, and made it much easier for de Gaulle to eventually veto the UK application (just as UK diplomatic ineptness had made it easier for him to veto Plan G some years previously).
The story is not irrelevant today. Imagine that the UK had said, in June or July 2016, that given the closeness of the vote it would seek the closest possible relationship with the EU. Imagine that it had said that avoiding a hard border in Ireland was a major priority, but that it also wanted to avoid the emergence of trade barriers within the UK. Imagine that it had said that, therefore, it would be seeking to remain within a UK-EU customs union, and that it would unilaterally commit to remaining fully aligned with all EU regulations regarding goods. Imagine that it had said that, self-evidently, this would require it to abide by all relevant ECJ rulings, and that it would naturally be willing to make a contribution to the EU budget (but nowhere near as big a one as at present, of course). And imagine that it had said that it would also be willing to sign up to a broader set of guarantees ensuring that it would not try to steal a competitive march on the rest of Europe by undermining labour and regulatory standards more generally.
It might have been quite difficult for the EU to reject such an offer outright, and there might even have been reasons for it to welcome it. The EU could have made it clear that under these circumstances there would not be free access to the EU market for services, and that this might have very negative implications for various manufacturers based in the UK for whom the provision of services to their clients is an important part of their business. It could have added that these difficulties might be surmountable if the UK accepted all four freedoms of the Single Market and paid more into the EU budget. The UK might have objected to these objections. But at least there might have been a basis for negotiation.
It seems as though the UK government may finally be inching towards a situation in which it finds itself proposing something very like the hypothetical offer outlined above. There are still mad aspects to what is supposedly being suggested, notably the proposal that the UK collect customs duties on behalf of a customs union of which it is not a member, and that goods destined for the internal UK market should potentially be allowed to face an entirely different set of tariffs. And yet, the UK is apparently proposing to remain harmonized with EU regulations for goods. We are slowly getting there.
But only very slowly, and only in the face of enormous domestic political resistance. The UK did not proactively propose the solution suggested above – it is being dragged there, kicking and screaming, since it is finally coming to realize that there is no sensible alternative (other than accepting not only a customs union but all four Single Market freedoms, or not leaving the EU at all). Its government has worked, not to build up trust, but to destroy it. Its ministers have made no secret of their disdain for the EU. The UK government has made it clear that it really does want to do free trade deals around the world, and that it really does want the freedom to regulate – or deregulate – as it chooses. Even if Her Majesty’s Government is forced by circumstances to sign up to something that precludes this, we know that this would be only reluctantly: it is quite obvious that the UK does not want this solution. And we also know from experience that its government is capable of signing a document one day, and denying that it means what it says the next.
And what this means is that there is no trust on the other side of the table; nor should there be. And that implies that even if this British government eventually comes to accept that it needs to sign up to full customs union membership, as well as full compliance with EU regulations as regards goods, an offer along those lines may not be acceptable to the EU. Indeed, it seems almost certain that it will not be.
But it is still worth asking what would have happened if clear minds and strategic thinking had prevailed in London in June and July 2016, and such an offer had immediately been proposed without any strings being attached. There would still have been those who, like de Gaulle in 1963, would have wanted to reject it, and they might still have gotten their way. (They might even have been right: I am not implicitly comparing them to de Gaulle, who clearly behaved badly.) But I am willing to bet that it would have been more difficult for them.
The editor of Critical Quarterly bought me a drink last December and told me that he was planning a special issue on, of all things, Thomas Moore’s The Meeting of the Waters. Would I care to write an economics column on the theme?
Well, it’s one thing to write a quarterly column on whatever is interesting me at the time, another entirely to write them to order. But since we were coming up to Christmas, and since my father’s family is from Wicklow, I said yes.
You can read the result here, and while I’m not sure how much economics there is in it, I did manage to work in a reference to Sargent and Velde!
My latest Critical Quarterly column was written in the immediate aftermath of the Catalonian independence referendum, and is available here.
For those of you who can access it: this is a nuanced account of the role of newspapers during the Irish property bubble by a former student of mine and Roy Foster’s.
There has been a lot of talk since yesterday’s deal pointing out that there has been a certain amount of fudging going on. But there is fudge and fudge, and it’s helpful to be clear about what’s being fudged and by whom.
Paragraph 49 states:
“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s objective is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
These are commitments made by the UK to the EU and there is very little fudge here. The UK is committing as a backstop solution to the full alignment needed to “support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” in the context of an over-arching commitment to avoid a hard border. Avoiding a hard border requires full alignment for all traded goods. North-South cooperation involves the famous 142 areas of North-South cooperation we have been hearing about, and brings services like health into the mix. The all-island economy is even broader. And the Good Friday Agreement brings things like human rights into the mix.
Paragraph 50 states that:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph , the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.”
Notice anything? These are not commitments made by the EU. These are, once again, commitments made by the UK, in this instance to the DUP.
Paragraphs 49+50 appear to be a bit of a fudge, although the fudge can be undone by the entire UK maintaining full alignment with the EU. But let’s be clear: this is the UK fudging, not the EU, and the UK needs to fudge at this stage because of the internal contradictions of its own position. But the EU will naturally take the view that the UK must meet its commitments made to the EU in Paragraph 49. There is no fudge here: the EU has sought and obtained an impressive series of concessions from the UK, and the UK will be held to its word.
Note also that Paragraph 45 states that:
“The United Kingdom respects Ireland’s ongoing membership of the European Union and all of the corresponding rights and obligations that entails, in particular Ireland’s place in the Internal Market and the Customs Union. The United Kingdom also recalls its commitment to preserving the integrity of its internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it, as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union’s Internal Market and Customs Union.”
These are again UK commitments, and the first of these is in the present context a commitment to respect the fact that the EU needs to police the external frontiers of its Internal Market and Customs Union. So the turning-a-blind-eye-to-smuggling non-solution is out.
And finally, note that Paragraph 46 states that:
“The commitments and principles outlined in this joint report will not pre-determine the outcome of wider discussions on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom and are, as necessary, specific to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. They are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and United Kingdom.”
The first sentence rules out the Brexiteers’ Baldrick-like cunning plan to use whatever special arrangements may be reached on the island of Ireland as precedents, allowing them to have their cake and eat it when it comes to the economic relationship between Great Britain and the European Union. And the second sentence commits the UK to uphold its engagements on Ireland in all circumstances.
As I say, it doesn’t seem to me as though the EU allowed much fudging when it came to the UK’s commitments to the EU regarding Ireland.
How Her Majesty’s Government simultaneously manages to meet its Paragraph 49 obligations to the EU, and its Paragraph 50 obligations to the DUP, taking account of inter alia Paragraphs 45 and 46, is something it will have to figure out. The UK government clearly ought to fulfil its commitments to the DUP, but whether it does so or not is hardly a primary concern of the EU. Paragraph 49 is what the EU will care about, not Paragraph 50. (Although Ireland would be very happy if the UK met both obligations in the only way that seems possible, namely by effectively staying in a Single Market and Customs Union type of arrangement with the EU.) If the UK wants to leave the EU in a civilised and amical manner, and strike a trade deal with the EU in the future, it will have to uphold the very clear commitments it has made to the EU. How the British deal with British fudge — whether Mrs May betrays the DUP, or abandons her previous red lines regarding membership of a customs union and the Single Market — is a matter for them. But sooner or later they are going to be forced to confront and deal with the internal contradictions of their position.
I have a piece in the Irish Times this morning, available here.
I thought I would bring together all my Brexit-related writings in one place, so that I can find them more easily: I will be updating the page regularly.
(If any other academics or journalists want to put together similar web pages I’ll happily link to them below!)
The NZZ interviewed me last week in Zürich. I made the case that we live in a world that is already astonishingly open, and sufficiently so that it is allowing poor countries to grow rapidly; and that Davos Man and Woman should therefore seek to preserve existing levels of openness, rather than pursuing a permanent pro-market revolution that will inevitably provoke a political backlash (and indeed is already doing so). The interview is here.
I was at the Journées de l’économie in Lyon last week: this is a popular economics festival at which literally thousands of members of the public show up to listen to people like yours truly.
I was on a Brexit panel on the Wednesday, and tried to explain to a French audience how serious the issue is for us (I start about 30 minutes in, but the whole thing is worth listening to; I thought Jon Henley in particular, who preceded me, was really excellent and made all the points you would have wanted to make yourself); there was a more academic session on a very French topic (“Mutations du capitalisme“) on the Thursday, at which Daniel Cohen made a couple of points that I thought were very thought-provoking (and also very French).
My latest column in Critical Quarterly is available here.
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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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 we and the rest of the world clearly need to do a lot more.
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.
- 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 hypothetically to be subjected to local sales taxes in France (say). 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 (hypothetically speaking) 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?
- Now, that previous paragraph used the US language of sales taxes since I think that the US is a good point of reference in these debates. But in Europe we don’t have sales taxes: we have VAT. The current VAT regime is unfit for purpose: it leads directly to tens of billions of euros worth of fraud every year, perpetrated by organised crime (real criminals, not fancy lawyers and accountants). The sums involved are very large, even relative to the moneys lost to multinational tax avoidance strategies. The Irish government agrees that the VAT regime should be overhauled, and so do other governments, such as the French one. This is a first order important issue for the EU. Might it not make sense to consider whether and how to reform the taxation of cross-border e-commerce, within the context of such a broader reform? I don’t see that why Ireland would object to that, and once again, anything that emerged from such reforms that reduced the impression that the online giants are not paying their fair share would lessen the pressure on Ireland to increase the 12.5% tax rate.
- 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.
- 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. (I would be keen on an energy tax, since we need it for environmental reasons anyway, its revenues would be pro-cyclical, and it could finance infrastructural projects related to the energy transition that are badly needed.) But that common corporate 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.
- 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.
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 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).
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?”
My latest column for Critical Quarterly is now available here.
I have an op-ed piece in today’s Irish Times, available here.
I see that the government is changing its tone on Brexit and the border, and I welcome this whole-heartedly.
Life is too short to try to figure out what goes on inside the average Brexiteer’s head, but here is my best shot, as it relates to the Irish border.
Economics is all about choices, and consequently I have very little time for people who don’t realise that if, say, you eat a cake, you no longer have it. But as we know, the Brexiteers have refused to admit that their country does, in fact, have real and important choices to make.
In particular, if they want to avoid costly customs inspections, they need to remain members of the customs union. And if they want to avoid all the other border formalities and barriers to trade that existed before 1992, they have to remain members of the Single Market. If they exit both the customs union and the Single Market, this will inevitably reintroduce frictions of various sorts making trade with the EU more costly than at present, and this will remain true even after a free trade agreement is negotiated. For the whole point of the customs union and Single Market was to do away with those frictions.
So they have a choice, and it seems as though they are choosing to make trade more costly between the UK and the rest of the EU. That will have a variety of negative consequences for the UK economy. But to date, the UK government has been incapable of realising or at least admitting publicly that that is the choice they have made, since they are denying that you can’t both have your cake (leave the customs union and Single Market) and eat it (preserve frictionless trade with the EU). Perhaps they sincerely believe this — a scary thought. Or perhaps they just don’t want to admit it publicly, and given the many lies told during the Brexit campaign, you can understand why.
And this is where they hope that Ireland can help them. They tell us, hand on heart, that of course they want to avoid a Border, but what they really want is to leave the Single Market and customs union, and preserve frictionless trade with the entire EU. Which is, as said, impossible. But some of them apparently think that by shedding crocodile tears about the Irish border, they can achieve the impossible — by inducing the EU to turn a blind eye to smuggling across the border, thus undermining the EU customs regime and our consumer, environmental, and other safety standards. And of course, once the nonsense that technology can “solve” all border problems has been accepted in the Irish context, they hope that this will serve as a precedent for trade with the rest of the EU. Indeed, I have seen that argument made quite explicitly in the UK press, but since it’s Sunday I’m not going to spend an hour digging out the relevant quote.
But all that technology can do is lower (not eliminate) the Brexit-induced costs of legitimate UK-EU trade. It can’t stop illegitimate trade, which is why you really need border controls. And so we occasionally read British politicians and commentators tell us that the solution is of course going to involve a “light touch” approach towards smuggling, in effect “turning a blind eye” to it. Such suggestions are not only intellectually unserious, and unethical –since they amount to arguing that we should give a licence to organised crime to print money — but astonishingly politically naive. The UK is dealing with 27 other sovereign, democratic nations who aren’t going to allow their customs regime and regulatory standards be undermined, and their legal order upended, just to preserve the Brexiteers from the embarrassment that awaits them once the UK public figures out that cake, once eaten, is gone.
And so, as I say, I welcome the new tone coming from Merrion Street and Iveagh House. My best guess is that the hardline Brexiteers have never been interested in a special deal for Ireland per se, since they evidently don’t give a toss about the island, but that they have been hoping that Ireland can serve as the key unlocking a very, very special deal for the UK.
A deal so special that it is, in fact, impossible.
And I don’t think our country should let itself be used as the Brexiteers’ useful idiot.
I have just realised that there is now a video of my talk last November at the National Conference commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Rising. And so I thought I’d post a link to it, here.
For more than 30 years, Economic Policy has been publishing papers on pressing European policy issues. Preliminary versions of the papers are first discussed at Panel meetings. The 65th Panel meeting, which starts today in Valletta, features papers on the causes of Brexit, on the consequences of Brexit, on the impact of the 2015 reforms on the Italian labour market, on innovation, on entrepreneurship, on retirement, on monetary policy, and on mobile communications. The papers are available here.
A colleague has pointed out this Economist piece on gambling to me. Check out the figures on average annual gambling losses per resident adult, and where Ireland comes in the list: am I the only one who thinks these numbers are enormous? Or that we should perhaps be worried about them — especially the very large online component?
(This also gives me an excuse to complain about the FAI’s League of Ireland streaming deal with an online gambling company.)
I have been working for a number of years on interwar trade policy, trying to see if using more fine-grained data will alter the consensus view that 1930s protectionism didn’t matter much for trade flows, in the context of everything else that was going on at the time. It is time-consuming work, but we are beginning to produce some results now, the first of which are previewed here. And I suppose that one upside of the time it has taken us to put the dataset together is that, in the meantime, Brexit intervened, which will hopefully increase interest in quantitative studies of trade policy!
There are at least three reasons why I think an “off the cliff” Brexit is the most likely outcome.
First, and most importantly, an “off the cliff” Brexit is what the hard Brexiteers want: a break with the EU that is as clean and as unambiguous as possible. And they are currently driving the show. Arguments about economic interest have no impact on this group: for them, it is all about sovereignty, as they see it.
Second, the key Brexit ministers are clearly not on top of their brief. They assure us that jumping off the cliff will be fine, and then it emerges that they haven’t studied what its consequences would be: it is surreal stuff. Check out this clip of Brexit minister Davis, if you haven’t already, and remember: this is the man tasked with negotiating Brexit.
Third, while UK civil servants are very competent, there are only so many of them. If all off the shelf transitional arrangements are ruled out on theological grounds (having to do for example with the ECJ) then it is hard to see how bespoke arrangements can be sorted out within two years, even if ministers understand what needs to be done, and even if they want to do it.
Hopefully I will be proved wrong, but we have to assume the worst and prepare for it. That means not putting all our intellectual, political and administrative energy into fighting amongst ourselves as to what the best deal should be: there may not be one at all, simply because the UK doesn’t want one or isn’t capable of delivering it. It means thinking about the people who will be hurt — people working in small businesses exporting to the UK, primarily, but also people living in border regions — and about how the State and the EU can help them to adjust.* It means targeting every British food processing firm that may find itself at a competitive disadvantage in the EU post-2019 and seeing if they can be induced to invest in Ireland (outside Dublin, which is where we will need the jobs). It means becoming more granular: listening more to the industries involved, and solving specific problems one at a time. It means the rest of us abandoning the “I’m alright Jack” mentality that often pervades Irish discourse, and all of us realising that we really are in this together.
*And, even though I guess it is special pleading, spare a thought for cross-border workers. The pre-1973 CTA won’t be enough, I imagine, to replicate current arrangement.
Update: Wolfgang Münchau takes the polar opposite view, here. Hopefully he is correct!