Richard North, 26/11/2017  

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More than 500 days has passed since the referendum - time enough for even the most untutored of people to acquaint themselves with the basics of Brexit.

But mere knowledge, it seems, is not for the Telegraph. From its lofty heights, it transcends worldly concerns to reach down and instruct us mere plebs on the finer points of the Irish question.

According to this newspaper in yesterday's leader, "the border between the UK (which, of course, includes Northern Ireland) and Ireland (as in the Irish Republic) is an entirely internal matter". Thus we are informed:
… the two countries enjoyed a free movement area before joining the Common Market. Yet the EU and Dublin seem determined to use the border as a stick to beat the Government with, as a demonstration of European solidarity and a crude negotiating tactic in the Brexit talks. That this performance is dressed up as some crusade to protect the peace process is particularly tasteless.
The current stance by the Irish government, such as the proposal to keep Northern Ireland within the EU customs union, is regarded as "grandstanding", while Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has labelled it "blackmail". Any attempt by the EU, a third party, to impose a border settlement "would be seen as illegitimate".

With all this in mind, the leader-writer concludes that Theresa May "needs to get to grips with this issue". On top of that, "Ireland must face facts, the EU has to recognise its limits and the talks need to move on". So much is to be gained from a positive future relationship with Ireland and the EU and there is "too much to gamble away on political posturing".

And there, neatly summed up for anyone with a wit to understand what they are reading – i.e., anyone not on the staff of the Telegraph is ignorance so vast that it needs to be preserved for prosperity – a warning to future generations of how low it is possible to sink in the information chain and still retain something approaching sentience.

As to this example so fortuitously provided for us, the first point is, of course, the "killer". For as long as the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union, the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is an "internal border" of the Union. The Single Market is in force and free movement of goods, etc., applies.

However, once the UK has left the EU and if, as Mrs May intends, we leave the Single Market, the line between the province and the republic becomes part of the external border of the EU and the only land border between the UK and the EU.

Then, any weaknesses or legal discontinuity can turn this into a "back door" in to the EU. Any goods entering via this route will have free circulation throughout the Union and if they have by-passed the external controls, the integrity of the entire Single Market.

As such, on just that basic issue, the arrangements made at this border are a vital interest to the EU. But there is more. All parties wish to see a "soft" border with no visible controls, which will require – if indeed this is possible – special and innovative provisions, implemented by all parties involved.

Now, the issue here is that arrangements made could be taken as setting a precedent, so that whatever concessions are made to allow the invisible border to work could be demanded by the EU's other trading partners. And, under WTO non-discrimination rules, the EU would be hard-put to resist the pressure.

Not only is the border a vital interest, therefore, the EU has entirely legitimate concerns about the nature of any arrangements. To avoid being held hostage to fortune, the EU must ensure that any border solution is seen to be unique, applying only to the land border, thus preventing other trading partners using it a leverage to get themselves a better deal.

Under these circumstances, no rational person could argue – as does the Telegraph - that the EU and Dublin are using the border "as a stick to beat the Government" or as "a crude negotiating tactic in the Brexit talks". It is neither "grandstanding" nor "blackmail" and, since the EU has been careful to leave the UK and Ireland between them to come up with proposals, it cannot rightly be accused of seeking "to impose a border settlement".

Just about every assertion and every argument made by the Telegraph is wrong, making its advice to Mrs May, Ireland and the EU a travesty. The only "posturing" being done here, political or otherwise, is by the newspaper.

When it comes to posturing though, that is mostly what we get from the legacy media which, during the week has been working itself into a lather over the exclusion of the UK from the "European City of Culture" competition, on the grounds that the a post-Brexit UK will no longer qualify for entry.

Sticking only to that shallow point, though, few of the media were able to draw the wider conclusions that Booker notes in today's column.

Whether or not we should mourn that UK cities are no longer eligible to bid for the supposed honour, he leaves to others to decide. But what was interesting about this was how the EU went out of its way to emphasise that, under the rules, this is inevitable because we are choosing to become what it technically classifies as "a third country".

Its clear message was that, if we were "members of the European Free Trade Association" or remained in "the European Economic Area (EEA)", this supposed problem would never have arisen.

Nor is this the first time that the EU has tried to convey that, if only we remain in the EEA, a huge number of other far more serious problems would not be bedevilling our seemingly stalled negotiations, including that potentially insuperable difficulty we face over the Northern Irish border.

Last week, Booker mentioned a whole range of our most successful exporting industries which, thanks solely to our reckless decision to leave the EEA, will be faced with terrifying "non-tariff barriers" to their continuing ability to trade with the EU, by far our largest export market, worth in total £230 billion a year. The exports threatened in this way range from cars, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medicines and financial services to Welsh lamb and cheese.

For instance, precisely those same rules that will prohibit us from bidding for "Cities of Culture" mean that, once we leave the EEA and thereby become a "third country", we will automatically drop out of the system that currently gives our aviation industry, including our airlines, virtually all their legal authority to operate, and even to fly at all.

We will then have to negotiate a whole stack of complex new agreements allowing us to resume exporting (and flying), not just to the EU but to the rest of the world.

The truth is that our ministers and all those others who wish us to leave the EEA have never begun to explain to us the real implications of what we are facing here.

And as all the evidence suggests, including that of a senior figure formerly close to Government at the highest level who last week shocked his large audience at a private City seminar staged by a top international bank, this is because they haven't yet begun to understand those implications themselves.

One again, therefore, we home in on the same point – the overweening ignorance that is fuelling the Brexit "debate", with neither the media nor the politicians up to speed on the basics.

Nevertheless, it is not just ignorance which is poisoning the well. As I pointed out at the end of July, there are other, more sinister influences at work. And, less than four months later, we have the Mail on Sunday picking up the baton and running with it, outing the Legatum Institute in spectacular style.

With Legatum's work, it is sometime difficult to decide whether it is ignorance or a deeper agenda at play – although the net effect is often the same. But here is an issue which complicates an already murky picture. This is something to which we will have to return.

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