Threading a needle that has no eye

It is months since I last commented on the EU negotiations. Months during which so much has happened, such as… Such as… Such as coming to the conclusion that what we are trying to negotiate may prove impossible.  

There is a body of opinion in Britain that seems to think that, because the referendum vote was so close, we should be seeking an exit strategy that reflects the wishes of remainers nearly as much as the wishes of leavers. This would be ‘fairer’.

It might be fairer, but it would also be disastrous. This is not a situation in which the best of both worlds exists. We can’t, to borrow Boris Johnson’s acute intellectual analysis, have our cake and eat it. We stay in the EU or we leave the EU. The two routes carry divergent implications. There is no happy medium.

All but the most deluded leavers know that, when we quit the EU, there is much that we will lose. All but the most deluded remainers know that we should then have new opportunities that are presently denied to us. I still believe that, in practice and whatever the rhetoric, we will lose more from leaving than we will gain. That is why I voted to remain. But I also believe that if we leave in a way that denies us the new opportunities, that would deepen the national self-harm already inflicted by the referendum result. It would be the worst of both worlds.

The greatest of the opportunities is to be able to negotiate our own trade deals with the rest of the world on terms that are not dictated by the EU. Whatever the agreement that is eventually struck, we will lose some (perhaps a lot) of our existing EU trade in goods and services. As a minimum, we need the freedom to make up the shortfall.

It seems (and has always seemed) an incontrovertible fact that if we seek to stay in either the single market or the customs union, we will lose this freedom. That would negate the greatest definable benefit of leaving. The Government is surely right to say that we must leave both.

So we need to do two things: conclude a free trade deal with the EU, and set up a new customs union that retains most (and perhaps, to begin with, all) of the features of the current customs union. Is this even remotely possible as an objective? I have no idea, and the noises that come out of the EU are not encouraging. It would represent the outcome that the EU has always said it could not accept: Britain having most of the benefits of membership without any of the obligations. It would be a template for any other country wanting to leave the EU. If attainable at all, this outcome is bound to come at a heavy price – perhaps not far short of the price we currently pay for membership, thus negating at a stroke the fabulous savings that were trumpeted as a reason to leave.

But if we do not achieve a deal almost precisely along these lines, the problem of the Irish border will be insoluble. In a blog last year (11 June 2017), I wrote that this problem was the greatest threat to the negotiations, and nothing I have read or heard since has made me change my mind. Without the deal outlined above, a free flow of goods across the border will be impossible. Even with such a deal, and the maintenance of a soft border, the problem of uncontrolled immigration remains, negating another of the trumpeted reasons to leave the EU.

If there is no free trade deal and no customs harmonisation, there can be no soft border. According to the most delusional Brexiteers, this would be the EU’s problem, not ours. The onus would be on the EU to establish a hard border in the Irish Republic. The EU would bear the opprobrium for redividing Ireland. But the only way this could happen would be for us to admit EU goods free of duty, while paying a tariff on goods we export to the EU. Would the ultras fancy selling such a deal to the British public? It is a fantasy. Ultras might say that, when it recognised this possibility, the EU would back down. It seems more likely that it would call our bluff.

Other ways of avoiding the Irish problem have been mooted. One of them is to make a separate arrangement for Northern Ireland and keep it in the EU customs union while the rest of Britain leaves. Or, in other words, to establish a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This is how desperate the argument has become – to suggest what is effectively the break-up of the Union. And where does that leave Scotland? Or the deal with the DUP that keeps the Government in office?

In these circumstances, is it any wonder that the Government struggles to say anything? The alternative outcomes would appear to be either unobtainable or deeply undesirable. The Prime Minister, most individual members of the Government and most individual Conservative MPs did not knowingly choose to be in this situation, but they supported the means through which it arose, and they will carry the can for it.

It is presumptuous to say exactly why those who voted to leave the EU did so. However, the ability to control immigration and the repatriation of money currently paid to the EU appeared to be high on the list of reasons. Without those two factors, there would surely have been a decisive vote to remain.

It now appears that the best (the best!) outcome we can hope for is to pay a large annual ransom to the EU for a free trade deal and a new customs arrangement, while accepting a porous border in Ireland that will make immigration uncontrollable without identity cards.

As for the worst outcome, or the likely outcome, I shudder to think.