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Tangled up in red


There have been three constants in the Brexit negotiations so far. The first is that the UK side makes speeches, and the EU side drafts agreements. In a way this is logical, because of the second constant, which is that the clock is always ticking. The ticking clock means the EU has nearly all the power in these negotiations. That leads to the third constant, which is that whatever is finally agreed is pretty close to the original EU drafts. It is obvious if you think about it. The EU side has the power and they also have a clear purpose and unity in achieving it. The UK side is weak and divided with no clear purpose, so the best it can do is to give speeches so UK voters get the impression the UK is influencing what is going on.

The EU publishedyesterday a framework for an FTA between the UK and the EU. Given the logic above that means any agreed FTA will be pretty close to this framework. It has been designed by the EU to be compatible with Theresa May’s red lines. The EU is quite clear that it would be possible to have fewer barriers to trade than this FTA framework involves, but this would require changing the UK’s red lines. These red lines include that the UK will not be part of any customs union with the EU or the Single Market for goods.

Somehave interpreted this framework as implying that the EU is prepared to compromise on the hard line it took on the Irish border last week. However the document starts by noting that “negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full”. That includes the first stage agreement involving the Irish border, which gave three possible options: an agreement between the UK and EU so strong that it meant no hard border was required, a technological solution, or Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union. The second option is magical thinking. 

What the EU FTA framework shows is that the first option is not going to happen. The UK are not going to get an FTA much better than this, precisely because they are not as yet prepared to accept the obligations that go with a customs union or the Single Market. So Northern Ireland has to remain in a customs union with the EU to avoid a physical border, and there is no reason why the EU should compromise over this. 

That means that the EU's FTA document is for the remaining UK, and would involve a customs border between two parts of the UK. It seems incredible that the Conservative party could accept that, and the DUP will certainly not. As a result, the UK will carry on pretending that an alternative solution is possible, and saying that the EU should “get on with” looking at the first two options for the border. The EU has no intention of doing that, because the EU does not do magical thinking over Brexit.

This impasse could be broken by parliament if enough Conservative MPs had the nerve to vote for the UK to remain in the customs union, as Labour now wish. That would be absolutely the right thing to do, because the arguments that we should stay out of a customs union are absurd. We are likely to get much better trade deals with third countries as part of the EU than outside. It already looks like we will lose deals the EU has already made. And with Trump in the White House raising tariffs it is crazy. 

Ironically one reason Tory rebels may fail to rebel is that the delusion that there are other solutions to the Irish border problem will be broken sometime in the autumn anyway because of the second constant, the ticking clock. The clock in this case is that the EU will not agree to a transition period until the UK signs up to the legal version of the first stage agreement. So sign the UK will.

Whenever the UK government is finally forced to concede that it will have to agree to stay in a customs union with the EU the Brexiters should finally break with the government. That is the event that May has been so desperately trying to avoid, which is why she has got herself so tangled up with her red lines. If May understands what is going on, then she will spend the next few months trying to convince the Brexiters that signing the legal version of what she already agreed in December is not the commitment to the UK staying in a customs union that it in fact is. Declaring that it was something the UK could not sign was not a wise way to start that process. May is all tangled up in her red lines, and the country is all tangled up in blue. 

Postscript (09/03/18) Yesterday Donald Tusk said he was putting "Ireland first". The UK had to provide "specific and realistic" plans to avoid a hard border in Ireland before Brexit talks could make any progress. 


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