Does the Red Hand win at Brexit?

May’s conflicting promises on Northern Ireland make Brexit pointless.

A Red Hand, Ulster style

A simple way to look at the Brexit quagmire is through the simple tribal politics of Northern Ireland. Tony Blair’s one lasting political achievement was the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.  As a result of this, the militarised border with the Republic was dismantled, and police and army checkpoints disappeared. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic have been parts of the EU single market, so customs weren’t necessary. The border is currently as open as that between France and Spain. Both factions in Northern Ireland are very happy with this.

Brexit puts the open border in question. The positions of the players, apart from the benighted UK government (latest take here), are quite simple.

The government of the Irish Republic insists that Brexit must leave the border open. This position does not depend on the personalities or party affiliation of the government – any conceivable government would say the same. Under the Lisbon Treaty, it doesn’t have a veto in the Article 50 withdrawal procedure, but it obviously keeps an influential voice in Brussels. It would have a full veto on an ambitious post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and the UK, needing ratification by member states.

The ruling party in Northern Ireland is the hardline Protestant/Unionist DUP, created by Ian Paisley. It favours the open border too. More important, it insists that the Brexit should preserve an open border with the rest of the UK. The handful of DUP MPs in Westminster are essential to Teresa May’s thin majority in the Commons, so they can for now get their way.

The EU (meaning here the Council, the Commission, and the Parliament – the front is united) sides with the Republic, a continuing member state, on the border with Northern Ireland. It apparently treats the hypothetical NI/UK border as a domestic UK matter.

In the UK-EU agreement in December 2017 that closed the first round of negotiations, the UK made this commitment:

The United Kingdom also recalls its commitment to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls. […] The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. […] In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the allisland economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

To secure the DUP’s backing for the package, May added this promise:

In the absence of agreed solutions […] the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.

The DUP won a bonus point by making this part of a commitment to the EU, not just to Northern Ireland.

Here’s the Red Hand syllogism.

A. An open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland requires that both be part of the European single market and customs union.
B. An open border between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK requires a UK single market and customs union.
Therefore to maintain both commitments made by May:
C. The UK as a whole has to remain part of the European single market and customs union.

This is technically possible – it’s the deal struck by Norway. Basically, Norway applies all the EU single market rules agreed in Brussels (about a third of all EU legislation) while having only a figleaf consultation on their content. It is also anathema to the hard Brexiteers who have the upper hand in setting British government policy.

The current May position is: no single market, no customs union, yes to an elaborate bespoke free trade deal after Brexit. The Northern Ireland issue is being addressed by handwaving about “regulatory alignment”. This is b/s. Either you have the same rules (or the large relevant subset of them) as the common market, or you don’t. It looks to me like printing the EU regulations (think 50 pages on standards for Level 3 self-driving trucks) on pastel Union Jack paper.

Something will have to give. Which will it be? The options are:

  1. A hard crash-out Brexit including Northern Ireland, and a policed border with the Republic. It’s contrary to the clear words of the preliminary agreement. It would make a free trade treaty impossible, not least because the Irish government would veto it. The new border posts would risk reigniting the Troubles. This won’t happen.
  2. A hard Brexit with NI inside the EU single market and an economic border between NI and the rest of the UK. This could reignite the Troubles in a different configuration. The DUP veto in the Commons today is an electoral accident and unlikely to last, so a Dolchstoss could become technically feasible – though politically very risky indeed. Boris Johnson or ultra-Brexiter lunatic Jacob Rees-Mogg would probably be up to this betrayal of the Ulster Unionists, indeed of the Union, but I doubt if Teresa May (formerly an effective hardline Home Secretary) would be.
  3. A soft Brexit with a Norway deal. Like the proverbial Seattle coffee shop offering of a decaf latte with skimmed milk, you could call this “why bother”.
A Red Hand, Deadwood style

This situation is very peculiar. The most effective political opposition to the Brexit folly is being put up by a bunch of Ulster sectarians whose main worldview was set in 1690.  British businesses, including financial ones, who face disaster if free trade with Europe is lost, seem paralysed by tribal loyalty into ineffective hand-wringing. The latest contribution of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to a great constitutional crisis is a manifesto on animal rights with 50 policy proposals. His position on Brexit is to support the hacked referendum and criticise whatever May is doing. This man has a good chance of becoming Prime Minister. God Save the Queen, indeed.


Footnote for aficionados: customs union and single market

What’s the difference? Explanation.
The EU started out as a customs union under the 1956 Treaty of Rome. This implies not much more than common external tariffs. With Margaret Thatcher’s encouragement, it extended this from the 1980s to all the non-tariff barriers to trade: rules of origin, technical and regulatory standards, limits on subsidies, banned goods like ivory, and so on. Many of these rules are policed at borders by customs officers, along with criminal law enforcement against people smuggling and drugs, so it’s rather confusing. The simplest take is that a customs union is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a single market.

Footnote 2 : Origins of the Red Hand

A variety of lurid legends with a Game of Thrones flavour are canvassed here.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

23 thoughts on “Does the Red Hand win at Brexit?”

  1. Just some commentary.

    The DUP are not really the "ruling party", they are the largest single party (narrowly) in votes, but they are a tribal Unionist party. The corresponding Nationalist party is Sinn Fein.

    NI has been without a devolved administration for a year, due to a financial scandal over a renewable energy scheme. Brexit and the DUP deal with the Tories have hampered a return to devolved government. The DUP are wallowing in their Westminster trough, without a thought for how short-term it will be.

    Sinn Fein (which is the 3rd largest party in the Republic) initially opposed EU membership, but came around in time. There is no sign of an Irexit party, over 80% of the electorate accept membership of the EU. It is more nationalist to accept pooled sovereignty in a Europe-wide commonwealth than return to economic and political dominance by London.

    The view in the Republic is one of resignation – History says the British will shaft us, a hard border will be re-instated (despite any prior agreements), low-level terrorism will return, our economy will be undermined (hopefully temporarily). No doubt the British will make it sound perfectly reasonable, with renewed promises of "technological solutions" that have already been examined and found wanting.. Northern Ireland will be shafted, too. Centrifugal forces in the UK will be strengthened.

    1. Thanks for the DUP clarification.

      "History says the British will shaft us." In the past, Ireland's allies or potential ones in Europe have been unreliable (France), ineffective (the Papacy, Spain and France), or both these and odious as well (Nazi Germany, which fortunately didn't work out). This time, both France and Germany, the leading powers in the EU, have been admirably clear and tough in the Brexit negotiations and have supported the legitimate demands of the Republic.

      The preliminary agreement is crystal clear. The UK can only have a hard border with the Republic by saying goodbye to a post-Brexit trade deal, and crashing out of the EU on WTO terms. This would clearly be a disaster. The UK simply can't set up a new customs system by March 2019, so a transition period – a concession by the EU – is absolutely vital. The Brexiteers can still manage to damage the Irish economy and people by unintended fallout from the UK's own implosion. From Davis' statements, they pretty clearly don't care.

      1. "This would clearly be a disaster"—you're assuming that means it's unlikely to happen? I admit I'm no expert, but I follow British politics a little (through a variety of sources) and at least from the outside, there seem to be enough delusional, semi-psychopathic, and simply incompetent people sloshing around the current government—I won't mention the opposition—that collective instrumental rationality seems a bad bet.

        1. Like you, I'm not assuming at all that disaster is off the cards. It's where the negotiations are heading, with the feckless Johnson and Davis at the wheel and mad hard Brexit backbenchers egging them on.

      2. it is a bit more complex than that – the Republic was officially neutral in WWII, but closer to a non-belligerent Allied supporter. Overtures to the Nazis were made by an extreme Nationalist faction.

        The irony is that relation between the ROI and the UK had never been better. We were "best buddies" in the EU, Northern Ireland was off the table as an issue, and Devolved Government seemed to be working in NI. State visits by Heads of State had passed off well, with the Queen receiving a warm welcome in the Republic. But Ireland did not even feature as an issue for either Remainers or Leavers in the referendum. Later talk about a "non-frictional" border and the Good Friday Agreement seemed to be perfunctory and (as you point out) logically contradictory to British policy.

        The subsequent determination of the British Government to leave the customs union and single market has understandably left the Irish Government and people angry, frustrated and sadly fatalistic about the future.

        (As an aside, while you mention Irish nationalism and Europe, Britain has always had an ally on the continent, except in the dark years of WWII. Britain allied with the Netherlands or Austria against Spain or France, with Prussia against France, with Spain, Russia or Austria against Napoleon, with France against Germany, finally with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. While May has made great play with negotiating a "security agreement", that has been firmly parked under after trade negotiations)

  2. By the Wiki article you cite, the red hand symbol is used by republicans as well as unionists, so the title of your piece is a bit off.

  3. The Nationalists in NI are strongly attached to premise A, no border with the Republic (and some of them would take up arms to keep it), so they are definitely part of the equation. The Unionists quite like premise A but their dealbreaker is B. The headline looks fine to me. If my first image suggested to you a purely Unionist use of the Red Hand, that would have been wrong, so I am marginally guilty by omission there. I feel you are being over-nice.

  4. The nice thing about free trade is that it can be had without any agreement. UK can leave their door open to free trade. If the EU wants to restrict trade with the UK, that's their problem and their loss.

    1. Only for stuff like T-shirts with no technical standards. My example of self-driving truck software is not a joke. Nissan today supplies European demand for its electric compact car, the Leaf, from its factory in Sunderland. Leafs, like other EVs, now come with electronic driving assistance functions. These will become more elaborate over time, with full self-driving (Level 5) only five years or so away. To keep selling, Nissan must meet evolving European standards for this technology. Not approximately but exactly. I doubt if the UK any longer has the technical and administrative ability to set its own technical standards for the full range of complex modern products, and manufacturers won't want the expense of applying them for the small UK market. If Nissan can't keep selling Leafs to Europe, it will run down the factory and shift production to Barcelona. A lot more is at stake than the chlorine-washed American chicken Wilbur Ross thinks British homemakers are pining for.

      1. 1. Yes, Sunderland Leafs will probably need to meet EU standards in order to remain viable – no different if remain. I don't see why that requires reprinting the EU standards on UK letterhead.
        2. If UK has no import restrictions, the Leaf plant should be an even more low-cost manufacturer than before.
        3. If the EU is the sort of regime that would block its citizens (or, rather, its subjects) from buying a lower cost Leaf, then it's the sort of regime the UK will be well out of.

        1. I don't understand.
          ad 1: To avoid onerous and expensive inspections at Calais, car by car, the EU has to be satisfied that its standards are fully applied in Sunderland, with the force of law and effective monitoring. This does indeed require "reprinting the EU standards on UK letterhead", as in Norway.
          Ad 2: Why should Brexit lower Nissan's costs through cheaper imports? Post-Uruguay Round, tariffs on manufactured goods are trivial everywhere (IIRC average about 4%). The UK already has a floating exchange rate, within the EU. The recent fall in the pound has made British exports more competitive, without recourse to Brexit.

          Brexiteers dream of undercutting EU costs by lowering standards, for instance on working hours and pollution controls. The EU is aware of the risk and determined to stop it. If this means slightly more expensive cars, that's fine by me and I suspect most of my countrymen, including disaffected working-class Leave voters. Ayn Rand does not have much sway in the UK.

  5. The UK can only have a hard border with the Republic by saying goodbye to a post-Brexit trade deal, and crashing out of the EU on WTO terms. This would clearly be a disaster.

  6. 1. Maybe I misunderstood which regulations you were referring to. A lot of US cars are manufactured/assembled in Canada and essentially the same cars are sold in Canada. Whatever is involved doesn't seem to be a dealbreaker for such an arrangement.

    2. I said costs would be lower if UK had no import restrictions, e.g., no tariffs. Especially steel, which is a steep tariff.

    1. EU tariffs on Chinese steel are high at the moment (ca. €70 a tonne, depending on the producer) as an anti-dumping measure, in good faith or not. Add no undercutting of EU anti-dumping measures to the EU shopping list for the post-Brexit trade deal, or diktat as the British government has no negotiating strategy and will have to take what's offered.
      I think you will find that Canada just applies US standards for cars, with minor tweaks for colder winters.

      BTW, the actual legal strategy of the British government is to incorporate the entire EU legislative acquis (50,000 pages or maybe twice that, YMMV) into UK law en bloc, to ensure legal certainty and continuity. The argument is about the "Henry VIII" powers the bill proposes to give Ministers to change the acquis by fiat, without any of the procedural safequards that governed the original adoption.

  7. "Dumping" is something that goes on when a supplier has a temporary oversupply due to misjudgment of the market. When they have low prices year after year, that's not dumping. That's cheap steel, and I'll take it, preferably on a long term contract. The money I save can support industries where we have a comparative advantage. And if China is foolishly subsidizing steel, that means there are other industries where they are sacrificing comparative advantage.

    1. I'm with you on the fishiness and bad faith of most anti-dumping actions, including the EU's. The question is whether the UK after Brexit can gain any significant economic advantage by not joining them. You haven't provided any reasons against my case that it can't. They don't affect the general proposition that tariffs on manufactures (not agricultural products) are generally very low since the Uruguay Round.

      1. I may be losing the thread here, but I think the advantage I was originally talking about is that free trade and an open border to Ireland would finesse the issue of the Irish border. But to the extent the UK refrain from high steel and aluminum tariffs, UK companies will have an advantage over companies that are subject to the tariff. And they can take satisfaction from the fact that they are part of the solution of preventing a global trade war rather than part of a problem that could be devastating.

  8. I did so because I believed Parliament, having determined to hold a referendum and approved the rules under which it was fought, had a duty to exhaust the process and try to deliver Brexit in the form that it was promised to the British people. This was always conditional on Brexit not being substantially or materially different to what the official Leave campaign promised,
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