Brian Monteith: UK must be ready for a joker card in game of bluff over Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May will meet EC President Jean-Claude Juncker today, after which we should know if negotiations can begin on trade between the UK and EU. Picture: Getty Images
Prime Minister Theresa May will meet EC President Jean-Claude Juncker today, after which we should know if negotiations can begin on trade between the UK and EU. Picture: Getty Images
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Irish border can be resolved but there is still the prospect of a new problem arising late in the day says Brian Monteith

Today is yet another supposed High Noon for our Prime Minister when she meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to discuss progress in the Brexit negotiations. Afterwards we should know if the UK has made enough concessions for Junker to recommended to next week’s European Council that negotiations should at last begin on the terms of trade between the EU and UK.

I would urge caution on assuming anything regarding the outcomes of today’s meeting or the so–called negotiations. There is a game being played by the EU, for it’s political leaders know that with the continued efforts of the Labour Party to undermine the government – and the nationalists to undermine the UK – the country is being divided and the public cannot be sure who to trust.

It is said that behind the scenes agreement has been reached on two of the three issues laid down for settlement by the EU negotiating team, namely EU citizens’ rights and a financial agreement, leaving only the arrangements for the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK to be resolved.

I would not take it for granted these two issues have indeed been resolved and that some difficulty will not appear unexpectedly within the week or at some later date. What David Davis has said about the Brexit negotiations is true – “nothing is indeed agreed until everything is agreed” – and so Theresa May must plan for all eventualities.

The Irish issue shows how situations can change. For most of the past few months all the briefings coming out of Brussels and London were that the money was the chief obstacle, but just as that appears to have been resolved to the UK’s cost (not without some controversy, obviously) the Irish border has now been ramped up as a deal-breaker (possibly to extort yet more money, of course).

In the past few months Irish political leaders have become far more outspoken in raising the stakes, the effect of which has been to suggest that the UK has been either negligent or disinterested (or both) and can therefore only demonstrate genuine goodwill and concern for Ireland’s interests by meeting Dublin’s demands.

Anyone who has studied this particular “Irish question” closely must concede such a perception is false, for the UK government has repeatedly laid out its continued support for the Common Travel Agreement between the two countries (which predates EU membership of both countries) and published a working paper on how future arrangements for an open border can be possible without a hard border for the checking of goods or people moving between the two countries.

International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, was entirely right to point out that it is only once trade negotiations clarify there is no need for any tariffs between the two countries that Irish fears about Border posts can be alleviated – and so Dublin should be backing the UK in urging EU negotiators and the Council of Ministers to move on to that phase.

Were those trade negotiations never to happen, or to break down once they commence, and the UK decides it must therefore rely on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs, even then the UK has said it does not believe a border should be necessary. The impetus for a hard border comes not from the UK – but from the EU. For it is the EU that is arguing it would have to check goods coming from Northern Ireland into the EU’s Single Market via the Republic. The UK government has said it believes such checks will be unnecessary for goods coming into Northern Ireland from the Republic.

The UK is relaxed about such arrangements because goods already travel freely between the two countries when they are subject to different domestic taxes and duties and these are handled through “trusted trader” arrangements without border posts.

True, there is already a black market for the smuggling of some goods (tobacco for instance) but experience has shown that putting up border posts is not the most efficient way to capture these movements and so no-one – save the EU – has suggested they are required.

The Irish Government’s suggestion that the easiest way to avoid the border issue altogether would be to keep Northern Ireland inside the EU Single Market and Customs Union is as disingenuous as it is mischievous for it offers only a political rational for creating a virtual united Ireland.

It makes no economic sense because Northern Ireland’s commercial interests lie overwhelmingly with remaining in the UK’s Single Market – not outside it. It also makes no economic sense for the Republic of Ireland because the UK is its second largest market after the United States and, just as importantly, the vast majority of its trade to Europe travels through the UK to reach the continental landmass. What is in Ireland’s economic interests is to have no trade border at all between the EU and UK, not one technically in the middle of the Irish Sea between the UK and the Republic.

It is no surprise then that in giving greater priority to political interests over economic ones the Irish government stands accused by the Democratic Unionist Party of seeking to push Irish unification by the back door.

The statement by Council President Donald Tusk that Ireland will have a veto about moving to trade negotiations is as dangerous for the EU 27 as saying Spain can have a veto over Gibraltar.

It is by this raising of temperatures that the Taoiseach and EU have pulled the Peace Process into the Brexit negotiations, not the UK. If today’s meeting between May and Junker resolves such European jingoism, the UK government should still be ready for a new issue to arise at the last minute that can throw everything into doubt that might be used to try and force some new concession.

Likewise if today’s meeting goes badly, there is every possibility that an agreement can be found at the penultimate hour on December 14, for this type of brinkmanship is to be expected in dealing with the European Union.

If by the end of that Council meeting, after offering concession after concession, the EU is not disposed to talk about trade in a genuine and sincere fashion, then the UK must conclude the EU is not interested in any deal, withdraw its financial offer and make new plans accordingly.

Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain