A former ambassador to the European Union says the UK has no choice but to re-think its Brexit red linesby David Hannay / April 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images The sheer fecklessness with which British politicians have, down the centuries, treated the Irish dimension of their policy decisions and their unwillingness to understand the damaging consequences of those decisions, is a matter of historical record. Now, as the Brexit negotiations grind remorselessly on and the 29th March 2019 deadline looms closer, that fecklessness and disregard is reaching new heights. Take the 2016 referendum itself. A few days before the vote the two British Prime Ministers who did most to bring to a peaceful end to the appalling period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, John Major and Tony Blair, gave a solemn warning of the risks for the Belfast Good Friday Agreement inherent in a UK decision to leave the European Union. That warning may have had some effect within Northern Ireland itself, where the electorate voted by a substantial majority to remain in the EU, but elsewhere in the UK it was like water off a duck’s back. Not perhaps surprising when the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, whose job it was to be the custodian of the Good Friday Agreement, said leaving would be absolutely fine. Take also the implications of the government’s decision, following the general election last June, when it lost its majority in the Commons, to rely on the ten votes of the Democratic Unionist Party to push through any Brexit legislation. That party has strong views on Brexit, has already unhelpfully intervened in the negotiations last December and is now threatening to do so again. And yet it has no democratic legitimacy to speak for Northern Ireland on Brexit, having lost the 2016 referendum vote in the province. Another piece of fecklessness. When it comes to the issues in the Brexit negotiations themselves, the government pays elaborate lip service to the need to avoid a hard border for goods and services and the movement of people between the two parts of the island of Ireland. But the Prime Minister herself, without any authority from parliament, has ruled out the two easiest ways of achieving that objective, staying in a customs union or a single market with the EU. Instead she and her ministers speak, so far rather unconvincingly, of marvellous technological solutions of an untried kind which would supposedly avoid the need for any physical border controls, like some kind of magic carpet. And all this is intended to deal with a border with hundreds of crossing points and a massive amount of cross border traffic in people, vehicles and animals. “The government’s approach to Brexit contains some insoluble internal contradictions” As to maintaining regulatory alignment on both sides of the border in the 120 policy areas currently subject to common EU regulatory arrangements, there is no specificity in the government’s thinking at all; and, when the Commission wrote down in a legal text the backstop solution which was agreed last December to be used if all else failed, the Prime Minister promptly denounced it as something no British government could ever agree to. Since then silence has reigned. This issue too is rolling towards the next European Council meeting in June, with a final deadline in the autumn if the worst possible outcome for the UK, including Northern Ireland, and for Ireland too, of leaving in March 2019 without a deal, is to be avoided. Nor are trade and free movement the only matters at risk in any such “no deal” scenario or in an inadequate and skimpy end-state deal between the UK and the EU. There is also the critical issue of law enforcement, where the common membership of the EU and of its range of crime-fighting cooperation instruments, most prominent among them the European Arrest Warrant, has de-politicised cooperation in an area of policy which had previously been deeply defective. No wonder Sylvia Hermon, widow of a previous Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, is warning the Commons of the danger of a renewal of violence. It is hard indeed to avoid the conclusion that the government has saddled itself with an approach to the Brexit negotiations which contains some insoluble internal contradictions when its Irish dimension comes to be considered. It is no good simply trying to blame Brussels or Dublin for those contradictions, but the temptation to do that has not been resisted by the government’s supporters including the Foreign Secretary. And to argue that Brexit imperatives should simply override any damage that could be caused to the fairly fragile structure of the Good Friday Agreement would be the height of irresponsibility. Better surely to re-think some of those red lines and to reach for some of that famed British pragmatism which has so often been supplanted by ideology when Brexit issues are considered.