This was the dilemma posed by Austria at the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels yesterday: Essentially, how can Britain have its cake and eat it?
By leaving the EU and the Customs Union and the Single Market — the rules and regulations that govern trade and movement — how can London expect to have all the benefits of free trade?
As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar noted after agreeing to new guidelines for Brexit going forward yesterday, it’s a circle that is very hard to square.
Tough choices will have to be made on Brexit in the months ahead. Leaders agreed guidelines yesterday to start talks on a transition period for Britain’s exit, which will take two years.
Its future relationship with the EU will not be addressed in earnest until March.
After the transition is agreed, attention will turn to a withdrawal deal. Importantly, the Taoiseach and Government have ensured the special arrangements for the North will be, as he put
it, “stitched” into the withdrawal deal.
That is crucial, even if these protections are
triggered as a last resort.
The transition and withdrawal agreements must be done by next October, in preparation for Britain’s
actual exit by March 2019. It is those months, from October to March, where the focus will be strongest on a new trade deal.
And the Irish question is likely to return at that stage.
While there will be no borders or restrictions on trade and movement between the North and Republic of Ireland, as well as with mainland Britain, there are mixed opinions among EU members on this.
It sets a precedent and, as many are starting to agree, almost makes it impossible for Britain to cleanly break away from the EU and to set its own trade deals.
Clearly, Ireland wants the future relationship between the EU and Britain to remain as close as possible to the existing regime.
Mr Varadkar told reporters yesterday: “My job as Taoiseach is, as much as possible, to try to retain the status quo that exists.”
Some EU leaders don’t
see Britain being allowed to have it both ways. Ireland
recognises this too, as Mr Varadkar noted: “The idea that you can have free trade on the one hand and then total control of rules and regulations doesn’t work.”
So the Irish questions looks likely to return at a later stage, even with the backstop in place.
Austrian chancellor Christian Kern went further yesterday, saying even a
student could see that the “first phase” deal on the Irish border would come back to haunt the talks.
“So our primary school students can see that there
is a riddle to be solved,” he said.
A special deal has been done on the North, but other options will come into play. Mr Varadkar said: “There are other options and we will have to explore them as part of the process next year.”
So the Irish border question is by no means finished. Furthermore, the idea of a frictionless border will be entangled in a new EU-UK relationship.
As of yet, nobody can resolve the riddle of how this is just going to work. The Taoiseach admitted: “And that is quite frankly a circle that is very hard to square because it is very hard to see how you can achieve a full unfettered free trade between the EU and the UK if they leave the customs union and the single market.”