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Theresa May - political genius?
01 Apr, 2018

The Irish Border must be resolved now

Theresa May has succeeded in disappointing hard Brexiters while keeping them on side. One of her techniques is to defer decisions. To use that method on the Irish Border would be a betrayal of the electorate. MPs need to ensure that final decisions on the solution are taken in the next six months. London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.

Theresa May - political genius? April Fool! I don’t really buy that claim. The counter arguments are so strong. What she has achieved has more likely been brought about by a series of short term steps focussed on party management and boosting her own position, rather than some grand strategy.

David Cameron and George Osborne never involved her in Conservative Party election planning because they thought she had nothing to add. Her astounding ability to use the 2017 election campaign to eliminate what had been a strong and stable opinion poll lead and decrease her total seats rather bears them out.

As a politician her core skill was always in setting out what she did not like.The essential tasks of creating a vision for what she wanted and a pathway for how to get there were beyond her. That was intensely problematic for officials and police officers who knew that she did not like what she saw but had little to go on for what they should actually do to please her.

She was clearly in the camp of Ministers who distrust civil servants who offer doubts or advice that conflicts with an initial Ministerial preference, rather than being a confident Minister who relishes the argument and the chance to improve policy. That she never felt comfortable apart from with her loyal special advisors was always a handicap. It reduced the number of voices she heard and saved her from the need to justify her case.

But she has led Hard Brexiters a long way from what they want

Theresa May’s great pre-referendum Remain speech was straightforward English pragmatism. With no sympathy towards Europe or the European project a case-by-case analysis of costs and benefits led her to support Remain. Even now, after her big 2 March 2018 speech, she cannot bring herself to say that Brexit is worth it – even though it is necessary to achieve her two big objectives: immigration control and leaving the ECHR.

But think of the list of things that she has persuaded Hard Brexiters to swallow: payment of our financial obligations to the EU, a transition period, rights for EU citizens who arrive in the UK during the transition period, a deferral of leaving the Common Fisheries Policy, ECJ rôle even after the transition and much more. It is hard to identify the concessions the EU has made.

Her techniques

She has brought the Brexiters along by sounding reassuringly tough; by stringing out the process; by promising that we can have all - or now most of - our cake and eat it; by deferring decisions and even discussion.

The country of course has paid a price for this exercise in party management. Tough talk in a negotiation only works if you have the power to impose a solution and need not worry about resentment at an unfair settlement. Otherwise it just sours the climate and reduces the changes of a successful outcome.

Delaying recognition of the inevitable means that we now have only seven months of serious negotiating time left. In that period we need to agree the Framework for Future Relations, wrap up the Withdrawal Agreement and finalise the Transition Agreement.

While the last two are quite well advanced (apart from the Irish Border), joint work on the Framework has barely begun. Theresa May’s 2 March 2018 speech is still looking for a fantasy Brexit. The EU Council’s 23 March 2018 negotiating guidelines are in a quite different place.

The Irish Border

Let’s just recap. Everyone – apart from Hard Brexiters - acknowledges the importance of the Good Friday agreement in supporting peace in Northern Ireland. Everyone – again apart from Hard Brexiters – recognises that a hard border in Northern Ireland would hamper the progress towards a full and lasting peace.

None of the available solutions works for everyone.

We can dismiss the Hard Brexiters’ so-called solutions: the Irish Republic should leave the EU; the EU should just not have a hard border on its frontier.

The December 2017 agreement set out four options.

First, the overall UK/ EU settlement would ensure that there was no hard border.

Second and third were two methods of managing the border well through technology and administrative schemes. These are untried, do not exist and improbable. Moreover, no actual border is as frictionless as the UK/Eire border is now, not USA/ Canada, not Sweden/ Norway, not EU/ Turkey. These solutions are just magical thinking.

Fourth, Northern Ireland would remain under as much EU jurisdiction as was necessary to ensure no hard border. In spite of agreeing to it in December 2017, the Prime Minister rejected it in February 2018 as unacceptable because it would put a border between NI and GB (unless option 1 applied). It is however the backstop which the EU put into the draft treaty and which both sides are now working up.

So – if we rule out a hard border between GB & NI - in practice we are left with either a hard border – which however well it is managed means a failure to support the peace process - or Option One.

Let’s be clear what resolving the Irish Border through the overall UK/EU relationship means. Staying in the Customs Union is not enough even though many seem to think it would be. It is the Single Market that ensures the conformity of products which allows them to pass borders unhindered and provides the freedom of movement for a Polish lorry driver on the route from Dublin to Belfast. So the solution would entail Norway Plus. The softest of soft Brexits.

And if you are going to stay in the Customs Union and the Single Market, why not stay in the EU?

Timing

If the Irish Border is the issue that derails Brexit, then we need to have the decision made well before we leave on 29 March 2019

It would be intolerable for Theresa May to just defer a decision into the discussions during the transition period such that we find in 2020 – after we have left – that the only available option is to stay in the Customs Union and Single Market. Re-entry, to regain our voting rights, would require going through the whole accession process. The terms of entry might or might not preserve our opt-outs and rebate.

Whatever the deal is only the people have the right to the Final Say in a referendum on the terms. That is true whether the proposed Brexit is hard or soft.

Keir Starmer’s job

So MPs need to make sure that the British Government reaches a settlement on the Irish Border in the next few months. Either the Government’s border-management solutions must be shown to be workable. Or the separate regime for NI and a border in the Irish Sea must be made acceptable to the nation. Or we must face facts about the overall UK/EU relationship.

Whatever, we should have the final say, and we should know what it is that we are having the say on.

Keir Starmer and Tom Brake – over to you.

 

 

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