Did no-one spot that Britain is leaving the EU in five years' time?

It didn't get much attention but a draft European treaty leaked last week maps out a course that, if

Despite the twin facts that European Union affairs came to dominate political news towards the end of last year and the eurozone crisis remains the single most important factor in deciding whether or not the UK economy can recover in 2012, Britain - or rather the British media - just don't seem to be able to sustain in interest in the EU for very long.

Most of the political coverage and commentary in the weekend just passed has focused on two themes: the troubles with Ed Miliband's leadership and David Cameron's ambitions to occupy the electorally popular terrain of moral outrage at the excesses of freewheeling capitalism.

Hardly anyone seems to have noticed or picked up on an extraordinary scoop on Friday by ITV business correspondent Laura Kuenssberg - a draft copy of the proposed new treaty for Eurozone members and their fellow EU travellers. This, remember, is the document that David Cameron will not sign. Its very existence rather contradicts the established story that the prime minister somehow wielded a "veto", since - as has subsequently been noted on a number of occasions - a veto prevents something from happening. And yet here, the other 26 members of the Union are pressing ahead with their plans unimpeded by grumpy Britain.

And, as Evan Davis successfully established in his interview with Cameron on Friday, the fact of the UK's exclusion doesn't actually guarantee any of the safeguards for the British financial services industry, procurement of which was the ostensible motive for wielding a "veto" in the first place.

Of course, the document revealed last week is just the starting point for negotiations. There is a European summit due at the end of this month when the real work of putting a new treaty together will get under way. How much influence Cameron will have over that process is an open question - as is the matter of how much leeway his party will give him to inch back towards a slightly more cooperative stance (as Nick Clegg insists ought to be the case). One thing helping Cameron is the fact that several of the proposed signatories to the euro-plus pact share Britain's concerns about a hardcore fiscal union run, essentially, by Paris and Berlin. The 26 v 1 scenario that emerged at the end of last year masks more subtle diplomatic manoeuvres as negotiations around an actual treaty proceed.

Still, the outcome is looking very tricky indeed for Cameron.

Here are just a few paragraphs that stand out from the draft treaty (written, as usual, in the arcane jargon of European legal documents):

The Contracting Parties undertake to work jointly towards an economic policy fostering the smooth functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union and economic growth through enhanced convergence and competitiveness. In this context, particular attention shall be paid to all developments which, if allowed to persist, might threaten stability, competitiveness and future growth and job creation. To this aim, they will take all necessary actions, including through the Euro Plus Pact.

That sounds a lot as if the inner core of EU members that sign up to the treaty (i.e. not Britain) will be talking on a regular basis about all sorts of economic plans that cut across the wider single market. The idea of the europlus group hatching a "competitiveness" agenda without consulting London will be completely unacceptable to the UK.

With a view to benchmarking best practices, the Contracting Parties ensure that all major economic policy reforms that they plan to undertake will be discussed ex-ante and, where appropriate, coordinated among themselves. This coordination shall involve the institutions of the European Union as required by the law of the Union.

So that confirms it - the euro-plus group will set the economic agenda for the whole EU in advance of Brussels summits and then railroad their plans through the Council.

The President of the Euro Summit shall keep the other Member States of the European Union closely informed of the preparation and outcome of the Euro Summit meetings.

Britain will be allowed to find out what has been arranged in her absence and invited to agree.

Within five years at most following the entry into force of this Treaty, on the basis of an assessment of the experience with its implementation, an initiative shall be launched, in compliance with the provisions of the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, with the aim of incorporating the substance of this Treaty into the legal framework of the European Union.

And eventually - in the not too distant future - whatever grand new economic schemes have been settled by all of the signatories to the new treaty will be presented to the non-signatories as a fait accompli and turned into a new pan-EU treaty after all. At that point Britain will have to sign up (having had minimal input) on a take it or leave it basis. It is very hard to see any government agreeing to that, let alone parliament ratifying it, whoever is running the government by 2017.

In other words, this draft treaty sets up a framework and a timetable for the evolution of European economic policy as mediated by EU institutions that, if not substantially amended, all but guarantees Britain's departure from the Union. Not long ago it was scarcely thinkable; a distant hope for the most hardline sceptics. Now it's all queued up to happen in five years' time. It is odd, to say the least, that this didn't get more coverage over the weekend.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”