Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Bicycle shed syndrome

Today the Brexit negotiations focus on the legal draft of the withdrawal agreement whereupon there is some consternation over the shape of the settlement for Northern Ireland. Firstly we must note that this only comes into force in absentia of a trade agreement to be concluded after formal exit. It is a backstop clause.

The disagreement stems from the EU effectively retaining NI as part of its customs territory, thereby creating a sea border in the event of no deal, whereupon we would find ourselves compelled to broadly align with the EU even without a formal agreement.

This has been described as an attempt to annexe Northern Ireland. It isn't. It is protecting its own territorial and systems integrity by laying down the conditions required for it to relax border controls on its frontier. It will use means most convenient to the EU in the absence of a coherent proposal.

You may not like that fact and you may not like those conditions but the UK is the one petitioning for an unprecedented exemption and having failed to produce a deliverable strategy the EU is sticking to its own legal defaults. These are May's chickens coming home to roost.

May has already said she will not agree to this proposal in which case, without an alternative, we are back to the default assumption that no deal necessarily means a hard border in Ireland.

Given that a future trade agreement is a near certainty should the withdrawal agreement be concluded, this is something of a red herring but it should be noted that this precise dilemma will resurface during those trade talks whereupon we will once again see demands for a whole UK solution which does not compromise the territorial integrity of the UK.

As to what form this takes, there is really only one answer and that is full conformity to the EEA acquis on goods, which for now the EU is saying would amount to cherrypicking - so it really looks on the face of it that the entire single market aqcuis will have to apply, leaving only the question of what institutions with service the relationship, be it Efta or some other instrument.

The fastest way to resolve the current impasse would simply be to trust that a trade agreement will follow the withdrawal agreement and delete the backstop proposal entirely. That though, would not fly politically. The UK will probably have to accept it with a few tweaks here and there. In other words, a fudge. Barnier has already said "We will delete the 'backstop' if an agreement is made and it becomes unnecessary". It's barely worth the energy invested in it. Bicycle shed syndrome as usual.

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