Bluff – but bluff by whom, and targeted at whom? There are several possible candidates for both.
Note: Extract from article first published at The Conservative Woman on Tuesday 15 October 2019
Those, maybe, are the real questions, because this drama has multiple actors, all of whom have interests and agendas that may be colouring their reactions.
Though Boris has, since last Thursday remained fairly tight-lipped about the details, some kind of, in effect, double customs union, involving keeping Northern Ireland in a de facto, if not de jure, customs union with the Republic, appears to be the basis for this tentative rapprochement.
But when 85% of Northern Ireland’s exports are to the UK, with only 5% and 3% to the Republic and the EU respectively, it’s hard to see why Northern Ireland would burden itself with onerous EU costs and regulations for such a small proportion of its trade, and risk disruption to the flow of the major part of it.
Which might explain why, as early as last Friday, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds had already rejected the double customs union as ‘unrealistic’, asserting that the Province staying in a full customs union with the UK was non-negotiable, and that for the ongoing ‘tunnel’ talks in Brussels to disregard this pre-condition would be counter-productive.
Presumably, Dodds had already perceived what other commentators have since come round to concluding – that, far from negotiating in good faith, the EU is actually trying to squeeze Northern Ireland into a NI-only backstop, a view which Barnier’s rejection of Johnson’s proposals and demand for more UK concessions does little to dispel.
The technical assessments of Johnson’s proposals are not especially favourable. Anand Menon of The UK in a Changing Europe reckons the long-term economic impacts are negative, and potentially more damaging than the deal negotiated by Theresa May, but the chart below appears to acknowledge that they do give the UK more independence and flexibility. ALR readers are recommended to visit the UKinCE website for themselves and make their own judgement of its pro or anti Brexit stance.
Theresa May’s former Europe Adviser, Raoul Ruparel of Open Europe, however, is more sanguine. There are some concerns, he says, but they can be managed. ALR readers should visit OE’s website https://openeurope.org.uk and make their own judgement about its pro or anti Brexit stance, too.
As former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson points out, a double customs union would also potentially be a breach of the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement, and a violation of the Principle of Consent which was enshrined within it.
We also know, because former Secretary-General to the EU Commission Martin Selmayr was indiscreetly frank about it, that it has long been the EU’s position that relinquishing economic sovereignty of Northern Ireland is the price the UK must be made to pay for leaving the EU. It would be unwise to assume that the reactions of both Brussels and Irish Taoiseach Varadkar, who has shown himself regrettably ready to pander to nationalist Republican revanchism, scrupulously disregard this.
Bluffing about seeing a way forward would certainly be in Boris’ interest, and the Conservative Party’s. The almost exclusive focus of politicians, media and public on the Northern Ireland backstop serves to obscure the suspicion that, ultimately, he will try to get what otherwise is essentially Theresa May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ Agreement through the Commons. Its numerous flaws remain as serious as ever they were.
But Boris knows that, if he fails to achieve Brexit by 31st October, the chances of both his own survival and that of his government, are damaged. As political scientist and Professor of Politics at the University of Kent, Matthew Goodwin, points out, the votes which, because of May’s defenestration and Boris ascendancy to Number Ten on a Brexit do-or-die ticket, have come back to the Tories from the Brexit Party after its resounding victory in the European elections, could once again vanish.
So he has every incentive to play up the chances of a deal after all, and exaggerate its significance, if it can be presented as something which warrants getting a soft-Brexit over the line. The recriminations can come afterwards.
Brussels and Dublin equally have an incentive, to understate the significance. The EU will be calculating that, by playing hardball, it increases the chances of a Remainer Parliament, which has already passed the Benn Surrender Act, forcing Boris, failing a 31st October Brexit, to seek an Article 50 extension on humiliating terms, probably involving conceding a second referendum.
In short, almost none of the actors in this drama has an incentive to be 100% genuine. Safer, perhaps, to assume that none of them are?
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