Politics can be bizarre at times, and that was certainly the case this week when the County Armagh village of Middletown found itself at the centre of politics in London.
At issue was the unannounced visit by the Brexit minister, David Davis, to the border – presumably to see for himself why it is blowing off course his plans for a negotiated exit from the EU. Such are the realities of politics that the lack of protocol applied by those arranging the visit eclipsed the real issue – the fact that the minister appeared to avoid debating the implications of Brexit with those living and working around the border who will be directly affected by whatever decisions are taken.
Hopefully Mr Davis left with a better understanding of how the frictionless border he and the government wants might be applied and made to work. The EU’s negotiators are not convinced this is possible. From the media comments of those denied a chance to speak to the minister there is a big task ahead to convince them London has a realistic political and practical solution. That, like many things to do with Brexit, is the stuff of high politics, and the seemingly never ending battle in the Conservative party over the EU and Brexit. This was meant to have been solved by the referendum, but it is now worse than ever.
Farmers are bystanders to this fight over their economic future, but it is the EU that holds the trump card. The UK agreed last December that there would be no visible border between Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland as an EU member state. If this cannot be achieved through technology there will be ‘regulatory convergence’, which means a customs union. All the ideas put forward by the UK have, to date, been rejected by Brussels. Locally and in London the concept of Northern Ireland alone having regulatory convergence has also been rejected. Whether there is scope for compromise, and where that might lie, only time will tell – but the pressure is on to agree a basis for trade negotiations with the EU-27. That favours a customs union, but whether that is deliverable politically by Theresa May is very much in doubt.
In a debate this week on the customs union idea a Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan warned, rightly, that being in such an arrangement could be worse for the UK than remaining in the EU. This was on the basis of the responsibility without power to influence decisions argument, which is valid. What is worrying for agriculture is that the MEP criticised those supporting the customs union idea, because the poorest in society would pay. This was based on a continuing link to the EU-27 denying consumers lower food prices. The key question not asked in the interview was why Mr Hannan believes leaving the EU will drive down food prices.
Food prices can only fall for one reason. That is if the government reduces or eliminates tariffs on food imports as part of the trade deals it needs to secure to prove Brexit can deliver for the UK economy. That would certainly drive down food prices and it has been the danger of Brexit for farmers since the process began. We have heard claims, but not guarantees, that food imports will have to match UK standards. However such assurances are meaningless without a legislation commitment. The mindset in government is around tariff elimination and free trade, and food is part of that equation.
A negotiated exit from the EU with a soft-touch deal to trade with the EU-27 would maintain the status quo. This is what the government wants and it would suit farmers, but because of the agreement last December not to have a border in Ireland this will be politically difficult to deliver. From comments last weekend UK officials seem to have accepted this reality. What is needed now is some form of face saving words that would allow the government to be in a customs union in all but name. This would not be a perfect solution but with that border commitment of last December in place the EU holds the trump card as the game is played out. Realistically, a perfect solution will not be achieved, and there will only be progress when both London and Brussels accept that.