This article was first published on BrexitCentral on 1 March 2018.
The lack of realism displayed by the European Commission in the draft Withdrawal Agreement it published on Wednesday was truly breathtaking. Its solution to the problem of maintaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic amounted, in essence, to the annexation of British territory by the European Union. Northern Ireland should, it proposed, remain in the customs union and also, effectively, in the single market. The whole arrangement would, it said, be overseen by the European Court of Justice.
It is hard to believe that the EU could ever have thought that a proposal of such extraordinary effrontery would be met with anything other than a flat rejection by the United Kingdom. Indeed, Theresa May could scarcely conceal her anger at Prime Minister’s Questions later the same day. Her robust declaration that the EU’s text was something that no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to was generally applauded.
To quote Churchill (and these days it is becoming increasingly difficult not to), what kind of a people do they think we are?
The issue of the Irish border could, of course, be addressed as part of the free trade agreement that the British Government has been pressing for since the Lancaster House speech in January last year. However, the EU, confined by the straitjacket of its self-imposed negotiating guidelines, declines to talk seriously about post-Brexit arrangements until the withdrawal agreement has been concluded. It is this stodgy, plodding, process-driven approach on the part of the Commission that is making the issue of the border more difficult than it need be.
We must hope that, in reasonably early course, the EU abandons its current stance, tears up its guidelines and starts to talk seriously about free trade. Hope, however, should never conquer expectation.
We cannot assume – indeed, it would be irresponsible to do so – that the current negotiations will achieve a satisfactory conclusion. At the moment, the prospects of agreeing a transitional period, much less a permanent free trade arrangement, look considerably more uncertain than they did a week ago. The Government must therefore reassure the public that steps are being taken to ensure smooth customs and border arrangements after 29 March next year, whatever the outcome of the talks.
That means spending money. The new CDS customs IT system is, thankfully, well advanced, but it will need to be adapted for conditions outside the customs union. Physical infrastructure will need to be constructed at our ports and airports. Customs and Border Force officers will need to be recruited and trained. Fisheries patrol vessels will have to be commissioned.
It will, admittedly, cost a lot (though the cost will, in due course, be recouped through savings in our EU contributions and customs duty, to say nothing of the £40bn we would otherwise. have paid as part of the “divorce settlement”). But the money is there; Philip Hammond set aside £3bn for Brexit preparations in the Autumn Budget, and made it clear he was prepared to allocate further sums if needed.
So that money must now be spent. It will provide reassurance to British business and public alike.
And, just as importantly, when the new customs sheds start going up in Dover, perhaps it will finally become clear to Brussels that time is running out, and if they really do want a post-Brexit deal, they should start talking to us seriously and urgently.