By Polly Lindsay, Strat Comms and Public Affairs Intern
This week marked the beginning of a series of position papers by the UK government detailing their plans for the relationship with the EU following the planned exit of the UK in April 2019. The government released plans for the continuing customs relationship between the UK and the EU, which would supposedly take the form of an interim period comprising many of the agreements currently in place, to be eventually replaced by a new ‘special’ form of customs arrangement or partnership. They also released a position paper on the future of Ireland and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic
Criticism and contradiction
The government’s plans on customs met with a frosty reception in Brussels and Westminster. There were objections to the prematurity of the publication, as the first round of talks involving the logistics of withdrawing from the EU are still ongoing. Critics, including Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead coordinator on Brexit, called the plan a ‘fantasy’. They noted that the UK government should focus on successfully completing the withdrawal agreement before moving on to phase two of the talks involving trade and the customs union. There are murmurs that this second phase may be delayed until December, embarrassing for the UK government who initially wanted to conduct both phases at the same time.
To be in & out of the Customs Union & "invisible borders" is a fantasy. First need to secure citizens rights & a financial settlement
— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) August 15, 2017
The intention of the UK government is to go through an interim period, in their words ‘a model of close association with the EU Customs Union’. Brexit Secretary David Davis referred to such an interim period as a ‘critical building block for our independent trade policy’, and allowing a ‘smooth and orderly transition’ for businesses. It contradicts Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Chancellor Philip Hammond in an article in the Sunday Telegraph three days earlier, where they maintained that the UK would leave both the single market and the customs union in April 2019. Such incoherence is unhelpful for UK businesses looking out for certainty.
There were also direct contradictions of the UK government’s plans from Brussels. The paper outlined ‘frictionless trade’ in the interim period, which the chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has on multiple occasions clarified is not possible outside of the single market and the customs union. Another contentious topic was the intention of the UK government to pursue trade agreements with other countries during the interim period. It’s clear that this will not be a popular position in Brussels. Peter Mandelson commented ‘the UK wants to be out of the customs union but in the customs union’. These mixed messages are unhelpful and confusing. The UK should be more specific in its position, and not make promises it cannot keep, particularly regarding topics so far in the future.
Brexit means Brexit
The main issue with the UK governments plans for Brexit is the level of ambiguity, both in their papers and general position. The language of ‘special’ arrangements, ‘deep’ partnerships, and ‘new, innovative facilitations’ is getting old. We’ve been told that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – hardly the most detailed of explanations of the future to come. The government needs to provide a more specific idea of what Brexit will look like. With the referendum over a year ago, it’s worrying that we still don’t know to what extent it will be hard or soft. David Davis called the paper ‘constructive ambiguity’, but it’s hard to see how in a matter so complex as the UK-EU divorce, ambiguity can in any way be constructive. The level of complexity of the divorce proceedings calls for a clear vision of what any arrangement might look like in practical terms, not a description of how ‘special’ it may or may not be. Unfortunately, given the nature of Theresa May’s divided party and hung parliament, she is ill-equipped to offer the level of clarity needed to ensure the least disruptive and most beneficial Brexit possible.
Hard Brexit, but soft border ?
Ireland continues to present the most complex problem to this initial phase of talks. The government released a position paper on Wednesday, detailing plans for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It promised little change and disruption to the current status quo, no return to a hard border, and a continuation of the Common Travel Area. All this sounds ideal but it is unclear how practically this is to be achieved if the UK leaves the customs union. There are fears of a ‘back door’ through Ireland in and out of the EU through which people and goods may be smuggled. The UK proposes that for small companies there would be no customs checks at all, presenting a potential loophole, whilst larger companies would declare their goods retrospectively before crossing the border. This could turn into a quagmire of bureaucracy over what constitutes a small company, and the process of declaring goods by those companies that don’t qualify. It seems counter-intuitive that the UK is both promising a new era of politics and economics, and at the same time maintaining that there will be no change to the way things are.
The risks of a failure in creating a sustainable solution to the Ireland problem are high. The Common Travel Area is seen to be key to upholding the Good Friday agreements. Tensions between the nationalist and unionists are still high, and are exacerbated by the Tory support of the DUP, the most extreme unionist party, and the current impasse in the National Assembly, which doesn’t look close to resolution. The talks cannot move on to phase two of the negotiations until there has been sufficient progress phase one, which includes Ireland. Given the delicacy required, practicality is the order of the day, not unachievable pipe dreams.
The UK government needs to move away from ‘fantasy’ and start delivering clear and achievable goals if they are to make a success of Brexit. Any less could prove extremely damaging to the UK economy and Irish stability.