Brian Monteith: Theresa May must show her resolve

Last week the House of Lords twice defeated the government on key clauses of its bill to leave the EU.
European Council President Donald Tusk (right) walks with Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar. Picture: GettyEuropean Council President Donald Tusk (right) walks with Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar. Picture: Getty
European Council President Donald Tusk (right) walks with Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar. Picture: Getty

This week the Lords are likely to defeat the government again, sending an amended bill back to the Commons where David Davis will be expected to try and reverse the changes.

We shall then find if the government has a majority for the UK to leave the EU’s single market and customs union.

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Keeping the UK inside the customs union – either formally or through some form of association agreement – has become the central issue for the EU, which is why EU negotiators continue to play up the red herring surrounding the Irish border. They fear the UK leaving the customs union because they fear the UK making a success of being a free trading nation.

It was no coincidence the EU continues to reject the UK’s proposals for a frictionless Irish border; for its negotiators sense, correctly, that with the help of the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, political tensions in Northern Ireland fuelled by implied threats of violence from republicans around any manifestations of a physical border – and Theresa May’s thin majority based on support from the DUP – might force the Prime Minister to change her mind and stay in the customs union. This would be a complete and utter betrayal of her repeated public assurances that the UK will leave the single market and customs union – but it still remains a possibility.

The UK does not need to have anything resembling what people might normally think a border is like – the only voices demanding a hard border emanate from the EU and its useful idiots who do their bidding – either because they hate all things British and want to foment trouble or hope to deny Brexit happening at the 11th hour.

The Common Travel Area between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom – established back in 1923 – ensures that with only limited exceptions there is no need to check identification when travelling between the two countries.

Any such checks at harbours or airports are about security and are no different in that respect from making similar journeys within the UK.

Further, because neither country is a member of the Schengen Agreement, the Irish border, be it at any of its airports or harbours along its coastline, is effectively the UK border too. Likewise, anyone entering the UK from outside the British and Irish isles at airports such as Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh – or at any of our ports and harbours – is also being screened by us on behalf of the Irish authorities. This is why there are no border posts required between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

But what about trade –surely once the UK is outside the EU there shall be a need for checks on goods crossing the border? In part the answer is yes, for where differences might arise in tariffs or regulatory standards (because we may have negotiated preferential deals with countries such as Australia or India) goods in transit will need to be checked – but, crucially, they do not need to be inspected at a physical border.

Modern technology means that shipments can be checked before and after transit with only a small number of spot checks that again can take place at random locations well away from the geographical border.

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It is conveniently forgotten that there is already a considerable amount of low-level evasion of taxes and excise duties by the public on either side of the border – such as Irish citizens avoiding the punitive Irish vehicle tax by registering cars at UK addresses, or others buying petrol, diesel and heating oil at one side or other of the border depending on the sterling/euro rate; or simply buying alcohol and tobacco by shopping at Asda in say, Strabane, and taking it home to Letterkenny (or vice versa). These practices undoubtedly cost the Irish and British treasuries lost receipts but they have never been seen as a justification for erecting a physical border. The same should be the case for shipments of goods that through VAT regulations are already recorded and monitored.

The prize of leaving the Customs Union is a big one – it will allow food prices to fall for British families; it will allow and encourage more global trade especially with the fastest growing countries to the benefit of our economy, jobs and general prosperity; it will allow us to establish freeports for the excise and tariff-free import-assembly-export trade in possible locations such as Grangemouth, Prestwick; and by removing the custom union tariffs will encourage greater investment and economic development in African and Asian countries that want to do business with us. That more profits are made by German coffee processing than growing coffee beans in the whole of Africa is an obscenity no-one can morally justify. Leaving the customs union can right that wrong.

With Jeremy Corbyn having gone back on his general election commitment to leave the customs union, Conservative backbench rebels might yet defeat the government and put the negotiating process into chaos. In reply, committed Brexiteers will have nothing to lose in either bringing down May’s premiership or wrecking any deal between Downing Street and Brussels.

Whatever the outcome, the UK will still leave the European union – that much is certain and is accepted by the EU itself – but it will be without a trade deal mutually beneficial to both parties.

The UK will then default to conducting its goods trade under World Trade Organisation rules that are perfectly good enough for the US, China and Japan. The larger part of our economy, in services, does not enjoy significant benefit from the single market and customs union (try buying British insurance in Germany or France) and the threats of aircraft being grounded will be exposed as the lie they always were.

Overnight the vast majority of the Irish Republic’s trade with the EU that transits through the UK to reach the continent will be faced with the cost of duties, delays and inconvenience that it’s government says it wishes to avoid. That is why Leo Varadkar is playing with fire by putting the EU’s interests ahead of his own country’s. Theresa May must not blink but continue her commitment to leaving the customs union – or be demonised by every side for, over time, betraying remainer and leaver alike.