On Wednesday European Union leaders gather for their summit in Brussels when the principle elements of the Brexit deal between the EU and the UK are supposed to be agreed, pending the Withdrawal Agreement being finalised at a special summit in mid-November. Prime minister Theresa May is due to address a working dinner of heads of government on the topic.
There was some drama yesterday with unplanned talks between leading Brexiter, the Brexit secretary Dominic Raab and the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, aimed at paving the way for the emergence of a deal in Brussels. But, as expected, the talks faltered over how to resolve the Irish border issue. If we are to leave the economic structures of the EU, as many in the Conservative Party demand, it is impossible to avoid the erection of a physical border between the UK and the EU on the island of Ireland. A hard border is something both of the negotiating parties – the UK and the EU – say would be unacceptable because it would threaten the Good Friday Agreement settlement in Northern Ireland which brought peace after decades of bloodshed.
The government has suggested a hard border involving customs checks could be averted by using technology – but it does not exist yet, so what to do in the interim? One vehicle by which a hard Irish border could be avoided, pending the development of the to-be-invented technology, is the whole of the UK staying in the EU’s customs union if we leave the bloc. Whilst I believe there is a majority in the House of Commons for this, there is not in the Conservative cabinet which is insisting any continued participation in the customs union post-Brexit be temporary with a specified end date. The EU insists that, in the event no technological or other solution to a hard border is found, the UK remaining in the customs union after Brexit operates a “backstop” mechanism to guard against a hard border with no specified end date. If this circle can be squared, there will be a deal; if not, crashing out with no deal becomes ever more likely.
But the cabinet row over the customs union should not obscure the PM and her government’s failure to do what she promised in her Lancaster House speech last year, never mind the failure to deliver on the promises (there is still no sign of that £350 million extra per week for the NHS) which were made by Vote Leave sponsors now in the cabinet like Raab, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, Chris Grayling and Andrea Leadsom.
In that speech in January 2017 May promised “we will provide as much certainty and clarity as we can at every stage” in relation to Brexit. She said she recognised “how important it is to provide business, the public sector, and everybody with as much certainty as possible as we move through the process”. In particular, she pledged “to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two year Article 50 process has concluded”. Notwithstanding what happens at the summit this week, that is patently not going to be the case, with the details of the future trading relationship due to be finalised after the scheduled date of departure on 29 March 2019. Funnily enough, these promises were airbrushed out of May’s Commons statement but she and her government cannot be allowed to get away with this.
All that will be agreed before departure will be details of the resolution of the Irish border issue (if it is resolved), EU and UK citizens’ rights in each other’s countries post-Brexit, and the divorce bill of at least £50bn. We will only get a vague political declaration on the government’s “aspirations” for the future trading relationship which will not be legally binding. Whereas May had previously promised there must be precise guarantees of frictionless trade as a condition for the exit deal and that “the days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end”, she is now asking the House of Commons and the British people to hand over £50bn with no agreed trade deal in return or any clarity on what the future relationship will be. It is all being parked into the “transition” period after we are scheduled to leave. This represents a far worse deal than the very good one we have now as an EU member state.
Whichever way people voted, whether they voted Leave or Remain, they did not vote for this. That is why tens of thousands will be joining the People’s Vote and The Independent’s ‘March for the Future’ this Saturday, demanding that the British people get a vote on the Brexit deal. They did not vote for this mess.