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5 December 2017

Why a deal on the Irish border – and a softer Brexit – may be on the cards

Not all is as it first appears.

By Stephen Bush

Full speed ahead: two significant things have happened as far as the prospects of a deal go.

The first is that Ruth Davidson, spiritual leader of Conservative Remainers and actual leader of the Scottish Conservatives, broke cover to criticise the prospect of one part of the United Kingdom falling within the regulatory orbit of the European Union but not another. She suggested that if regulatory alignment “in a number of specific areas” is necessary to avoid a hard border then the whole of the United Kingdom should do the same.

The trade-off in trade deals is simple: you balance the level of political freedom you are willing to give up with the level of freedom to trade with one another. The European Union is the highest-trade, lowest-freedom trade agreement in the world, and its closest association deals – the EEA and its multiplicity of deals with Switzerland – are the next in magnitude. You can reasonably argue either way about which of those deals gives the most freedom or the most trade, but that’s a topic for another time. The importance of Davidson’s intervention is that it paves the way for a much softer Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom: perhaps not membership of the actual EEA but something a lot closer to it than CETA, the EU’s deal with Canada which is high on freedom but low on market access.

But just as significant as Davidson’s intervention are the people backing it. Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s chief whip, has praised the statement on Twitter. Donaldson is, of course, far more aware of what the DUP’s ten MPs and the party leadership in general is willing to bear. He is, also, a major part of the party’s leadership, unlike the loudest DUP MP on the issue so far, Sammy Wilson. (It may be helpful for New Statesman readers to see it like this: Wilson is a bit like Labour’s Chris Leslie – a forceful advocate for a part of the party that is not currently in the ascendancy and may be in permanent eclipse.)

The language being used by the DUP’s deputy and leader of its Westminster group, Nigel Dodds, is worth watching too. He has said that his party will not accept any principles or language that separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. That isn’t the same as not accepting language that keeps the whole of the United Kingdom closer to the European Union. A deal that pleases both sides, on the lines described by Davidson, might not be as impossible as people think.

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