Ire­land weaponised in Brexit talks

The Irish Times - - Opinion & Analysis - Paul Gille­spie

Agri­cul­ture and food are key strate­gic is­sues in the high pol­i­tics of world trade. This puts Ire­land North and South at the cen­tre of cur­rent ne­go­ti­at­ing out­comes on Brexit and transat­lantic re­la­tions.

Reg­u­la­tory align­ment be­tween the UK and the EU on agri­cul­ture and food trade is a cen­tral ques­tion in the more in­ten­sive talks that are on­go­ing in Brus­sels. Bri­tish ne­go­tia­tors high­light re­gained sovereignt­y as they re­sist fu­ture align­ment with EU stan­dards; si­mul­ta­ne­ously the United States de­mands the UK ac­cepts agri­cul­ture and food im­ports from there, as the price of a trade deal to compensate for loss of EU mem­ber­ship.

Those al­ter­na­tives pose a fate­ful choice for Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, con­sumers and farm­ers. For 40 years Bri­tish food stan­dards have been aligned with Europe’s. They are higher than US ones and based on the pre­cau­tion­ary not risk prin­ci­ple. As­sum­ing the real po­lit­i­cal agenda and logic of Brexit is to Amer­i­can­ise its economy and down­scale its wel­fare state, it is clear which way this should go. But that di­rec­tion comes up against strong op­po­si­tion from a broad range of Bri­tish in­ter­ests.

The con­flict plays out be­tween the UK trade and en­vi­ron­ment de­part­ments over a com­mis­sion on stan­dards, in the Con­ser­va­tive party be­tween farm­ing and free trade ad­vo­cates, and in on­line pe­ti­tions and large su­per­mar­ket dec­la­ra­tions re­ject­ing US chlo­ri­nated chicken and ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied agri­cul­tural goods.

It re­calls his­toric di­vi­sions within the Tories over abo­li­tion of the corn laws in 1846 and im­pe­rial pro­tec­tion 50 years later. Boris John­son’s gov­ern­ment has to balance these in­ter­ests with the work­ing-class vote that gave him vic­tory over Labour last De­cem­ber, which sup­pos­edly favours cheaper US food.

Every­day im­pact

The real every­day im­pact of Brexit thus comes through to Bri­tish cit­i­zens in these bat­tles over food stan­dards, just as over con­ti­nen­tal mo­bil­ity and res­i­dence rights. Brexit out­comes will be de­ter­mined in good part by how they are per­ceived and re­solved in forth­com­ing do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.

That pol­i­tics be­comes in­ter­na­tional at the Ir­ish Bor­der and in the Ir­ish Sea. The Pro­to­col on North­ern Ire­land at­tached to and part of the With­drawal Agree­ment treaty spec­i­fies that the North will re­main part of the UK cus­toms regime but will op­er­ate EU stan­dards and trade rules to avoid reim­pos­ing a bor­der on this is­land.

The treaty com­pre­hen­sively un­der­writes the 1998 agree­ment, cre­ates a sys­tem of joint EU-UK com­mit­tees to im­ple­ment the trade rules and pro­vides for a vote by the North­ern Ire­land as­sem­bly on whether the ar­range­ments should con­tinue after four years.

The UK cus­toms ser­vice has con­firmed the pa­per­work re­quired to con­trol trade from Bri­tain to North­ern Ire­land and in­fras­truc­tural work is to pro­ceed in Larne and else­where to im­ple­ment it – de­spite ear­lier de­nials by John­son. North­ern Ire­land busi­ness in­ter­ests and now the new Ir­ish Gov­ern­ment de­mand clar­ity and in­sist on the need to pre­pare.

Cher­ryp­ick­ing mar­kets

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Ma­lign sce­nar­ios need to be ex­plored, how­ever un­favourable

The tim­ing is ex­tremely tight and in­creas­ingly per­ilous for ar­dent Brex­i­teers. If ma­jor com­pro­mises are not agreed this month, the UK chief ne­go­tia­tor will have left for a new se­cu­rity job in 10 Down­ing Street by Sep­tem­ber. An­gela Merkel says the in­com­ing Ger­man EU pres­i­dency can­not let the UK cher­ryp­ick ac­cess to its mar­kets as if they had not left. The US chief trade ne­go­tia­tor says a US-UK trade deal can­not be con­cluded by Novem­ber – per­haps after Trump’s de­feat. The pow­er­ful agri­cul­tural and food lob­bies in the US Congress would not agree one ex­clud­ing ac­cess for its prod­ucts, which they see as a bat­ter­ing ram to open more im­por­tant EU mar­kets.

Nor would the Ir­ish con­gres­sional lobby al­low one that cre­ated an in­ter­nal Ir­ish bor­der.

Ire­land is nev­er­the­less be­ing weaponised by Lon­don in the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions. The threat of a no-deal Brexit puts pres­sure on Ire­land be­cause re­ver­sion to world trade rules would put 57 per cent UK tar­iffs on Ir­ish beef ex­ports to the UK, where 40 per cent of out­put goes.

A more rad­i­cal no-deal in­volv­ing non-im­ple­men­ta­tion of the North­ern Ire­land pro­to­col would force Ire­land and the EU to de­fend the sin­gle mar­ket on the Ir­ish Bor­der. For how long would EU sol­i­dar­ity last then? Could the UK’s con­se­quent loss of in­ter­na­tional trust and cred­i­bil­ity out­last that?

Such ma­lign sce­nar­ios need to be ex­plored, how­ever un­favourable or un­likely they seem. There are huge po­ten­tial costs for the UK as well as for Ire­land and the EU.

If those driv­ing EU Brexit pol­icy be­lieve these costs are worth­while to make their de­sired tran­si­tion, Ire­land would be­come the geopo­lit­i­cal bor­der be­tween such new An­glo-Amer­i­can and Eurasian va­ri­eties of cap­i­tal­ism.

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