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Why the Republic and Northern Ireland need shared regulatory frameworks

There are 140 areas of north-south co-operation which would be affected by Brexit.

Ireland is hogging the Brexit headlines. While some reports suggest that the UK and EU are close to a solution on the vexed question of the Irish border, still others maintain that the Democratic Unionist Party, on which Theresa May depends for her slim Commons majority, will not accept any differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

And yet such differentiation has to be granted if the UK government intends to square the circle it has drawn. Somehow, the UK must leave the single market and customs union while providing the Republic with the political commitment it has demanded that the intra-Irish border must remain invisible.

Much has been written and said about the tangled politics of the Irish border. Yet a couple of issues tend to get lost in the hubbub. First, while obviously the government in Dublin is hugely concerned about what happens to the intra-Ireland border, it is also arguably the most anxious among the EU27 to move on to phase two of the Brexit process and begin negotiating a close and mutually beneficial trade relationship. And for good reason. A recent report by the Irish Central Statistics Office underlines the close trading links that bind the two countries.

Ireland is simultaneously demanding that its requirements for the withdrawal phase be met while being the most anxious to proceed. And of course this is partly because of fears related to a violent sectarian past. But a focus on this has shifted attention from the variety of more mundane, yet equally important factors militating in favour of continued regulatory alignment between the north and south of the island. Simply put, divergence would impact on people’s lives in a variety of different ways.

Throughout last summer, British, Irish and EU officials undertook a detailed “mapping” exercise intended to examine all the areas of north-south co-operation which would be affected by Brexit. They identified more than 140 such areas. The exercise has served to underline the serious challenges posed by any regulatory divergence between the Republic and the North.

Healthcare is one area that stands to be profoundly affected. Joint membership of the single market ensures single standards for medical devices, mutual recognition of medical qualifications, mutual acceptance of cross border ambulance activity and so on. Patients on the island of Ireland can fill prescriptions written by doctors on one side of the border in pharmacies on the other side of the border. But for this to happen, doctors and pharmacists need to be working to the same standards and need to know medicines are approved in both the North and South. The EU provides the legislative framework to make this possible. Continued regulatory harmonisation is the only way to ensure it continues to be so.

Likewise, when it comes to agriculture, above and beyond the questions about trade and tariffs that dominate public debate, the single market and common rules are crucial. So, for instance, authorities on both sides of the border co-operate closely when it comes to managing the risks associated with animal health. For example, they meet regularly to work on contingency planning in case of an outbreak. This co-operation happens through the North South Ministerial Council working groups and is based on provisions and conditions laid down in EU legislation. Removing this framework from Northern Ireland would not only impose a border, and make co-operation more complex, but would increase the risk of an outbreak of disease.

Transport, too, would be massively affected by regulatory divergence. A variety of bus services cross the border on a regular basis. Services scheduled by Bus Éireann, Translink and other private operators, services going from Donegal to Scotland which collect passengers in Northern Ireland, local operators bringing children to school, tour buses and privately hired buses all benefit from the common regulations that exist. Bus services that cross the border do so easily because the services are regulated at an EU level. EU legislation ensures that bus services comply with the same vehicle safety standards, driver hour regulations and other safety measures. It also enables authorities on both sides of the border to harmonise co-operation in enforcing safety measures. Removing this framework would hinder the ability of services to operate across the border, adding additional complexity and burdens, undermining confidence in the safety of services, and reducing the ability of authorities to ensure that all adhere to high safety standards. Ultimately, of course, it would be ordinary passengers who would suffer.

And finally, consider energy. Consumers on the island of Ireland benefit from the existence of a wholesale single electricity market, with all of the economic and social benefits that come with that. The single electricity market is an integrated wholesale electricity supply system built entirely upon binding EU legislation and policies. If it unravels because Northern Ireland no longer applies EU legislation, the electricity supply market on the island will fracture. If nothing else, the loss of efficiencies of scale implies that electricity will become more expensive for consumers.

So the Irish border question is not simply about sectarianism. Nor, indeed, is it all about tariffs. It is also about rules, and the impact those rules have on ordinary people on both sides of the border. These citizens live in a world in which the existence of the same regulatory framework shapes numerous aspects of their daily lives.

Obviously, ensuring an absence of regulatory divergence will be challenging. The political problems are all too familiar, but they are not the only ones. There will also be issues around Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s own internal market (and whether, for instance, the terms of new UK trade deals dealing with, say, chlorinated chicken will apply to the province). 

Whatever path is chosen will be problematic. But don’t expect Dublin to stop demanding some certainty about the lives of its citizens, however much it also wants to move on to talks about trade.

Anand Menon is the director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, King’s College London

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.