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1 February 2024

Brexit is not as secure as it appears

Voters have concluded that leaving the EU was a mistake because all the government can offer is damage limitation.

By David Gauke

This week marks four years since the UK left the EU as a matter of law. Brexit is not the political issue that it once was but its legacy is being highlighted more and more. its realities have been highlighted anew. 

Not all the news, in fairness, is bad. The UK has returned to Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship scientific research programme, and the government has launched a campaign to encourage British institutions to bid for science funding. 

Less cheerfully, the UK is imposing border checks on goods entering the country from the EU. This will put up prices for consumers, increase border delays and potentially discourage European businesses from exporting to the UK, thereby reducing choice and competition for British consumers.

Brexiteers who purport to be free traders complain that such border checks are unnecessary and that we could continue to waive them. “The government doesn’t need to do this,” claims Jacob Rees-Mogg, describing the checks are an act of self-sabotage (oh, the irony). As a temporary expedient, delaying these checks made sense but it is hard to see how this could be a permanent state of affairs. It essentially means accepting that the EU’s product regulations are always acceptable and would make it very difficult to enter into free trade agreements with third parties. One might almost argue that this would not be a proper Brexit. The unavoidable reality is that leaving the single market and the customs union means that additional frictions and costs are involved in both exporting to and importing from the EU.

The biggest development of the week, however, has been in Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party voted in principle to restore the Stormont Assembly on the grounds that its concerns about the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol had been sufficiently addressed. If the deal is sustainable, this is very good news, allowing power-sharing to be restored after a two-year hiatus.

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This issue takes us back to the period when the UK was trying to negotiate its departure from the EU and the issue of Northern Ireland could not be resolved. The fundamental point here is that it is not possible for the UK to diverge from the EU and to avoid a border either between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU would not accept a hard border on the island of Ireland; Northern Irish unionists would not accept a hard border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and Tory Brexiteers would not accept constraints on divergence. The matter was resolved by Boris Johnson accepting a GB/NI border but lying about it.

For the unionists, this was not a good outcome. They, along with some of their Conservative allies, hoped the matter would be subsequently resolved when Johnson had a Conservative majority and negotiated the post-Brexit relationship. Johnson let them down but continued to promise that he would resolve the matter one day.  

In doing so, principally by making threats to depart unilaterally from the agreements he had reached, Johnson poisoned the UK/EU relationship. Rishi Sunak – to his credit – got a deal in the form of the Windsor framework, restoring a much more constructive relationship with the EU and reducing the number of border checks.

It was progress, but the Northern Ireland trilemma was not removed, only mitigated. Divergence means a border, and the reality is that a hard Irish border will not be accepted by the EU.

This is why the issue continues to be so troublesome. If Sunak promises not to diverge, his party will be appalled. If he ignores the Northern Ireland protocol (as amended by the Windsor framework), the EU and the nationalist community will be appalled. The scope for concessions to the DUP has always been limited.

Within these considerable constraints, Sunak has been able to offer something. The “green lane” for goods has become the UK Internal Market System, involving fewer checks. Separately, changes to the EU tariff regime will mean that Northern Ireland can benefit from any lower tariffs that the UK negotiates with third countries.

It is complex, something of a fudge, and won’t satisfy everyone but this looks to be enough to get the deal over the line. That is no mean achievement.

There are three observations to be made about this. First, the fundamental constraints are real and may return to prominence in future. Divergence requires a border of sorts, and that border will be between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (whatever the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson may claim). But second, within those constraints, the EU has been willing to be flexible over their operation. That flexibility has been on offer to the UK when it has engaged constructively with the EU rather than threatening to browbeat it. Sunak has extracted much more from the EU than Johnson ever did.

The third point is that the good news about Brexit is when its impact is minimised or reversed. It is good news that the UK has rejoined Horizon because the status quo ante was a good arrangement. Reaching a deal on border arrangements that allows Stormont to be re-established is good news, because it moves us a little closer to the pre-Brexit position. But when we diverge by imposing border checks with the EU, the reality is higher costs and greater inconvenience. If the most we are able to achieve post-Brexit is with its mitigation, it is no surprise that public opinion, particularly in the case of younger voters, has concluded that Brexit was a mistake. In those circumstances, the current EU/UK settlement is not as secure as it appears.

[See also: The conservative paradox]

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