The withdrawal of Boris Johnson from the contest to lead the Conservative Party and his pitch to become the next prime minister means a favourable outcome that aligns with Irish interests from Britain’s talks with the EU is much less likely, the country’s leading Irish expert on Brexit has said.
Edgar Morgenroth, associate research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute, said the unexpected exit of Mr Johnson — who is seen as pedalling a softer version of the Brexit creed — makes it less likely the UK will strike a compromise with the EU around trade and the free movement of people.
Mr Morgenroth is a leading external adviser to the Irish Government on the economic and political consequences on Ireland, north and south, of the UK vote last week to exit the EU.
He told the Irish Examiner that the disarray of the victorious Leave campaigners since last week’s shock vote had, until yesterday, made it more likely that London would have to accept EU terms and drop demands to restrict the free movement of Europeans as the price for Britain’s continuing access to the single market as a member of the tariff-free European Economic Area—the EEA.
But Mr Johnson’s exit leaves justice secretary Michael Gove and home secretary Theresa May — relative hardliners in the Leave campaign — as the leading contenders for the race to become the next UK leader.
“If Gove and May make migrants a red-line issue then the single market is out for the UK. If they make it a red-line issue, it will not be an EEA [European Economic Area] solution,” Mr Morgenroth told the Irish Examiner.
The UK as a member of the EEA, accepting the principle of free movement of people, would be the best outcome for Ireland because it would remove any threat to the imposing of a border in Ireland between north and south, he said.
He said English voters had evidently given no consideration to the Republic and the North when they voted last week to quit the EU.
“The interesting thing is that the ball is entirely in the UK’s court. It is up to them to decide what the relationship should be.
"If they don’t want the single market with the free movement of people — and that is the only way they are going to get the single market — then they will get something less,” said Mr Morgenroth.
“But that is their own choice. I am pretty sure the EU would welcome them into the EEA, to participate in the single market, but only if there is free movement. If the UK wants that, then there is minimal impact.
"If they don’t want bits of that, or all of that — the rules and regulations, the common tariffs, the free movement of people — then clearly we can’t have them accessing the single market”.
Mr Morgenroth said Irish citizens’ unrestricted travel and right to work in the UK is determined by Britain’s Ireland Act enacted in 1949, but that law doesn’t determine the freedom of people from Britain to work in Ireland.
Moreover, the Good Friday agreement, as an internationally binding agreement, gives certain powers to European courts.
“People in England didn’t consider that and I am pretty sure Nigel Farage never thought of that,” said Mr Morgenroth.
“And that would obviously mean that European courts would still be relevant to the UK completely outside the EU.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved