This week's Brexit round-up

2 Sep 2018


Yes, yes, we've all had a good laugh this week. We discovered Theresa May's dancing looks something like a computer simulation of human movement circa 1983 - did we expect anything else, though, really? In the world of Brexit negotiations, the UK government's negotiation drive was again halted in its tracks by the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland border, or possibly somewhere in the Irish Sea.


May and her moves aside, what delightful developments were we treated with this week in the world of Brexit? 



Problems at the Border


As their continuous meetings commence - possibly the first agreement struck so far in Brexit that has actually been implemented - Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and his EU counter part, Michel Barnier, met again in Brussels this week to keep up their efforts of reaching some form of workable agreement. Once again, though, the intractable issue of the Irish border, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, overwhelmed the negotiations, proving itself perhaps too challenging to overcome. 


Essentially, the UK and EU have agreed in principal to have no hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. This in part is to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, is protected, fearing, with good reason, that a return to pre-GFA border arrangements might see a return to hostilities and possibly violence. How this would work without a customs agreement is somewhat uncertain. If a trade deal is not settled before Brexit, inclusive of a customs arrangement between the UK and the EU, then an alternative solution for the Irish border is required until a deal between the UK and the EU is ratified. And this alternative, known as the backstop, is what remains so contentious. 


The EU has categorically stated that they will not countenance a backstop agreement that places a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. As a member of both the EU and the Euro, the EU has been staunch in defending Ireland's position of rejecting a physical border constraining citizens and goods moving between the two counties freely. The alternative arrangement put forward by the EU is to form a border in the Irish Sea, allowing Northern Ireland to stay as part of the customs union, so goods, for instance, can still pass the border without checks, but any goods moved between Northern Ireland and the UK would be subject to checks. As you might imagine, the government are opposed to the bifurcation of the UK into two regulatory areas, and essentially handing Northern Ireland, in economic terms at least, to the EU. 


How the EU and the UK resolve this disagreement, for both the deal itself and the backstop, might end up being the irresolvable problem of the negotiations. The fundamentals of each sides position cannot realistically be compromised without giving up on other redlines drawn in the negotiation. Raab and Barnier's meeting was with the supposed intention of concluding these issues, amongst others, before the European Council meet in October. How Raab and Barnier resolve these problems will either take far more cunning and compromise that perhaps either have shown thus far, or, more likely, will crash the whole negotiations.  



May in Africa


Whilst on the continent progress with negotiations slowly chugs along, over in Africa, Prime Minister Theresa May has been on a diplomatic tour, showing that the Maybot also has a 'fun' setting. Ostensibly, the trip seems to be one of those standard diplomatic visits that all UK prime ministers or royalty do, that is to say, nothing wildly substantial will come of it. Yet it has been used to promote the idea of a post-Brexit trading boom with African nations, with May claiming to have secured new trade deals with the six nations. 


'New' was something of an exaggeration, however, as what May actually announced was the continuation of a current deal between six African nations and the European Union - the Southern African Customs Union (Sacu) - to be transferred once the UK is out of the European Union. So much for the bright new dawn as the world’s greatest free traders. 


To rain on the party further, it was also quickly pointed out that in 2017 Britain exported a mere £2.4bn to the six countries involved - those countries, for clarity, are South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Nabibia, Swaziland and Lesotho. Between these six countries, they account for a staggering 0.7% of UK exports, with Swaziland and Lesotho both buying less than £1m in goods in 2017. 


May might want to restrain her celebrations for the time being, given that in no conceivable way has this week helped make the future of Britain's trade look like the utopia Vote Leave imagined. 


The best that we can hope for at the moment is that Brexit turns out better than Theresa May's dancing. 


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