Britain misses the point in approach to Brexit talks, writes Martin Mansergh
Much as we might wish otherwise, the working assumption has to be that Brexit will proceed next March, and come into effect when the transition period ends, on January 1, 2021.
Given the difficulties that arise for Britain, the EU and Ireland, one might expect that any sensible country would think again. Invocation of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, extolling obstinacy and endurance as the path to ultimate triumph, misses the point, as the British retreat from the continent, decided upon in 2016, was absolutely unforced.
Although there will be hard-fought negotiations and stand-offs, Ireland’s achievable objective should be an outcome that minimises disruption, consistent with continuing EU stability.
The British dilemma is this. If they leave the EU, but remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union, they will have no say in decisions to which they remain subject. Even with consultative rights, this would not be nearly as good as remaining at the table. If the aim is minimum divergence, why leave at all?
A hard Brexit — which means leaving the Customs Union, the Single Market and the EU — could cause widespread dislocation of trade and communications.
In theory, Britain regains ‘independence’ from the EU, and ‘takes back control’, especially of migration, while being free to engage in trade deals with the wider world, with the EU market of 440m people on the doorstep treated as secondary.
Faith in this vision is faltering. Why would third countries find the British market more attractive than an EU market seven times its size? As a leading remain voice in the only previous British referendum on EEC membership in 1975, Mrs Thatcher was quite clear that they wouldn’t.
Tories should read what she said. She even advocated a second referendum on the terms of leaving, according to retired British diplomat Stephen Wall, speaking in Kilkenny Castle last August.
There is a titanic battle being fought over which end of the spectrum a post-Brexit Britain should find itself.
Ireland has a much bigger stake in the outcome than most of its partners. In economic terms, trade with and through Britain is much more substantial than cross-border trade, but it is the border and the peace process that has given Ireland exceptional leverage.
The EU sees the Good Friday Agreement and peace process as a precious achievement made in its own image by two member states with a long conflicted history between them. Common EU membership helped inspire conflict resolution, and produced an outcome, where the combined effect of peace and the Single Market resulted in the removal of any tangible border.
In the last 20 years, crossing between the Republic and the North has become as frictionless as crossing the border between France and Germany.
In any future border poll, people will be voting not just on a united Ireland but the North’s immediate return to the EU. Even without that, Northern residents — entitled to Irish citizenship, being Irish or British or both — will retain EU citizenship rights.
Without consent, the border is not policeable. It is one reason the Common Travel Area was created in 1952, after Ireland left the Commonwealth. The border issue and the British backstop guarantee, made last December, certainly push towards a customs arrangement that will mitigate the damage of Brexit.
Businesses should remember that confidential and detailed negotiations often progress far beyond the baseline positions publicly reiterated until a deal is reached. Both best and worst case scenarios are unlikely outcomes.
Martin Mansergh is a former TD, government minister and diplomat