Remember Brexit? It was a more innocent time in many ways, but for most of last year observers were spellbound by the saga of Britain’s attempt to leave the European Union. The deadline was extended three times – the third occasion dictated by parliament against the will of the government – but eventually a general election in December returned a pro-Brexit majority. The United Kingdom officially ceased to be a member on 31 January this year.
But this appearance of finality is misleading. Commenting on the election result, I said that “Boris Johnson’s claim that a line could now be drawn under the whole sorry tale is, like much of what he says, a lie.” Although its membership has ended, Britain remains bound by EU rules under the transitional provisions of its withdrawal agreement. That transition period, unless extended, runs until the end of the year.
What happens then? Well, Britain can ask the EU to extend the transition period for another year, but prime minister Johnson has vowed not to do that. Otherwise, the two are supposed to arrive at a new trade agreement that will harmonise regulatory arrangements between them and keep goods and services flowing smoothly across the Channel. Negotiations to that effect have been in progress for months, but they don’t seem to be going very well.
If there’s no agreement and no extension, then Britain on 1 January becomes just another foreign country from the EU’s point of view, with nothing more than World Trade Organisation rules to keep things moving. That’s effectively the “no deal” outcome that was debated so much late last year, but with a bit more time on both sides to prepare for it.
In other words, the withdrawal agreement that was reached last October did not avoid “no deal”; it merely postponed the issue and made it the default if no other arrangement was made.
At least, that’s the position in regard to Great Britain. Northern Ireland is in a different situation, which was the cause of much of the difficulty last year. Because it has a land border with Ireland, an EU member, it was especially important that it remained in harmony with EU rules. Johnson conceded that in last year’s agreement – meaning that there would instead, if necessary, be a customs border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Now, with time running out for a trade deal, the British government is going back on its word. Legislation unveiled this week would allow the UK to unilaterally vary the terms of the Northern Ireland customs arrangements, “notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which [it or regulations made under it] may be incompatible or inconsistent.”
As the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg puts it, “This bill will be seen by the EU as a pretty brazen attempt to override the deal that has been done.”
It seems likely that this is more a negotiating ploy than a final position, and that Johnson’s intention is to demonstrate his seriousness in order to bring the EU to make concessions. But the attempt may do damage even if it never becomes law. In Ian Dunt’s words, “By even toying with these ideas, regardless of the outcome of the talks, we are sabotaging our international reputation.”
Moreover, getting better terms from the EU is not going to be easy. While the negotiations are reminiscent of the game of “Chicken”, made famous from the Greek debt crisis of a few years ago, the positions of the two players are not symmetrical. “No deal” would hurt both sides, but the pain for Britain would be much more concentrated; the EU may well decide that it can live with it rather than give in to blackmail.
The other thing to consider is the even longer-running saga of Irish unity. Unionists in Northern Ireland opposed the withdrawal agreement last year precisely because it involved treating the province differently from the rest of the country. They feared that putting any sort of trade barrier in the Irish Sea would be a step towards reunification with the republic.
So Johnson’s move this week might seem like a step back towards their position. The truth is, however, that as long as Ireland remains in the EU (and it shows not the slightest sign of wanting to leave), Brexit is a losing proposition for the Unionists either way. If Britain leaves the customs union and the single market, there are going to have to be customs checks somewhere; if they’re not in the Irish Sea, they’ll be on the land border in Ireland.
And that would be a gift from the gods for Sinn Féin and the other supporters of Irish unity.