Richard Parry discusses the UK’s long-awaited articulation of what ‘alternative arrangements’ for Ireland might mean
‘I’m not sure of the exact technical details’ said Boris Johnson in a throwaway remark about broadband extension in his Conservative conference speech on 2 October. That approach is characteristic of his premiership, but later in the day he did present proposals that have content, in contrast to the earlier positions of both May and Johnson that Ireland could and would be sorted after Brexit, that any backstops would not happen and that alternative arrangements could be assumed to exist without being articulated. At last the plans have firmed up. The concept is of an all-Ireland regulatory space on agrifoods and industrial goods, no kind of customs union with the EU, and no physical hardening at the border. Although a six-page Explanatory Note was issued, the legal texts presented to the EU27 were not – but at least they exist.
A perspective on these proposals comes from the 268-page report of Prosperity UK’s Alternative Arrangements Commission (chaired by Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan) Getting a Brexit Deal (18 July 2019)
Their work was associated with the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ between various parts of the Conservative Brexit spectrum. Issued just before Boris took office, the report identified agrifoods checks as the most challenging issue (p16) , and described the mitigation of this by an all-Ireland SPS zone (animals, plants and animal products) as ‘very difficult to negotiate now with all parties at this time’ (p90; see also p116-17).
The DUP has now moved to and beyond this point. The catch is that it is accompanied by a Stormont veto on the proposals before they come into effect after the transition period, and four-yearly opportunities thereafter to terminate them with one year’s notice – the unhappy prospect of regular occasions for unionists to debate whether they want closer links with the UK or the Irish Republic. All this remains provisional subject to a final long-term trade agreement with the EU.
A key question is whether customs divergence within Ireland is acceptable at all to the EU. The UK side may feel aggrieved that the focus has shifted from efforts to avoid any checks at the border to disallowance of such checks elsewhere. The AAC report reflected UK lack of sympathy to EU claims that present external border controls are necessary and do in fact prevent smuggling (p46, p106). It suggests that ’effective border control has been compatible for many years with the avoidance of a hard border in Ireland’ (p45). It delves into esoteric trade detail, noting that the border inspection post for Rotterdam is 40km inland (p113). If Ireland is truly unique, its arrangements should presumably express a unique approach. But in the real world customs means paperwork and the freedom from that within the EU cannot be recreated outside it.
The AAC report is a rather poignant (because so detailed) statement of the Theresa May (and to some extent Boris Johnson) position that through goodwill all parties can and should pull together to make Brexit work. The difficulty is that Ireland’s recent history within the EU is of no border, whereas the other situations analysed are mitigations (such as transit schemes) of an established border infrastructure and history.
Initial reaction to the latest UK proposals suggest that for the first time a deal might just get a Commons majority. More pertinent is the lack of enthusiasm from Northern Ireland business, who perceive the lack of certainty and stability in the plans, and the increasingly confident reservations of the Irish government and European Parliament. The Stormont veto on its own might suggest failure, and a sense of intolerance of any customs checks is evident the more that detail is offered about off-border arrangements.
On no-deal, the AAC put it well. ‘The UK government wants to prevent congestion at ports; it relaxes administrative obligations that take time to fulfil and possibly cause delay’ (p147). What’s wrong with a little smuggling? It happens everywhere. The EU, in contrast, is planning for the consequences of no deal within its settled administrative architecture. And why not? Stay or go – but don’t expect us to gift-wrap your exit pass.