EU Referendum

Brexit: two Bs are not to be


In Belfast, Mrs May was nothing if not entirely predictable. The White Paper, she said, represents a significant development of our position. It is a coherent package.

Early in this process, she said, both sides agreed a clear desire to find solutions to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland through a close future relationship. We have now developed our proposals and put an approach on the table which does precisely that.

Then came more words: "It is now for the EU to respond. Not simply to fall back onto previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind. And, on that basis, I look forward to resuming constructive discussions".

Five hundred miles roughly to the southeast is Brussels. There, Michel Barnier was saying different words. "We are open to any solutions as long as they are workable", he said. But everything he had already said pointed to the huge divide between him and Belfast.

You can analyse the words said to the end of time – but there is little point. They mean only one thing: there is no workable solution. A deal is not to be.

Whether those words can stand, only time will tell. Maybe, as each side looks over the precipice, wise heads decide that the consequence of a "cliff edge" Brexit is unacceptable. And the talks take a different direction. But one would have to be a very brave optimist to believe that will happen.

However, if we may adopt Churchillian terms, this may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end. It may only be the end of the beginning.

Perhaps, it is embedded in the English psyche that, in order to deal with a major policy change, we need more than a sense of crisis. We need a real, full-blooded disaster on the scale of Dunkirk or the loss of Singapore to the Japanese before we can get to grips with what is needed.

Whatever else, we are not going to see the adoption of the Efta/EEA option under our current prime minister. This stupid woman has convinced herself that it "would mean continued free movement, ongoing vast annual payments and total alignment with EU rules across the whole of our economy, and no control of our trade policy".

If that was true, it would be unacceptable. That Mrs May believes it to be true makes it unacceptable to her and her followers. And that puts it out of reach as a solution for the time being.

Actually, this is one area where Barnier has made a major misstep. In indicating that the EEA might be part of the solution to Brexit, he has added the idea of continued membership of the customs union, to make it EEA-plus. But the customs union is neither possible nor necessary. The EEA Agreement has within it provision for tariff-free trading and a few bolt-on extras would give us the "frictionless trade" that everybody needs.

By introducing the customs union as part of the package, Barnier has in fact made it easier for Mrs May to justify saying "no" to the EEA. She needed little excuse as it was, and now she has wiped out the last vestiges of any chance that she could adopt the one option that has the slightest possibility of working.

With Barnier continuing to insist that the "backstop" is the precondition for the Withdrawal Agreement to be concluded, he has quite obviously rejected Mrs May's plea for compromise. It was always unrealistic that she should expect anything different so she has painted herself into a corner. There is no escape.

The "ultras", meanwhile, are preening themselves about their clever little plan that will bring them to what they believe will be the end game of a "no deal" scenario. Having convinced themselves that the WTO option is tenable, the "no deal" hold no terrors for them.

However, they are being too clever for their own good. No amount of managing can entirely mitigate the effects of leaving the EU without a firm withdrawal agreement.

The EU may take measures, in its own interests, to reduce the immediate impact of withdrawal, and there are things that the UK government can do as well. These could reduce the headline effect of a "no deal" Brexit, even to the extent of making the situation less damaging than it actually is.

We know, for instance, that the Port of Calais has purchased additional land, on which it plans to build a major Border Inspection Post (facility). It will be some time before that is operational, leaving the possibility that the Commission devises legal waiver which will allow UK produce to enter the EU without the full range of checks that normally apply to third country goods.

On the other hand, it would be unwise to expect, or rely on this. The Commission instead might stick to the letter of its own law, and exclude the import of live animals and products of animal origin from the UK, until the British government has gone through the formal procedures required for listing as approved exporters. By the time that has been completed, the Calais BIP could be up and running.

In the interregnum, however – before EU Member States had fully committed the investment needed to deal with the UK as a third country – there might be a short window of opportunity. Having acquired the status of a third country, there would be nothing to stop the UK applying to join Efta and then bidding to become part of the EEA. In other words, the Efta/EEA option is not dead until the fat lady sings.

What might reactivate the possibility of us exercising this option are two things. Firstly, the effects of a "no deal" Brexit needs to be so damaging that the UK population demands that something be done to resolve the ensuing crises. Secondly, the political pressure arising, in an atmosphere of bitter recriminations, must mean that Mrs May is forced to relinquish her post as prime minister.

A not-unrealistic outcome of this could very well be a general election and, in crisis conditions, a cross-party government of national unity cannot be ruled out. There are good historical precedents for such an event.

Whatever the actual outcome, the new government would then have to approach Brussels with an outline proposal which, if accepted, could pave the way for the Efta/EEA option, by which time the dose of hard reality in the "no deal" purgatory would make the option politically tenable.

All this pre-supposes that a "no deal" scenario would be a disaster – and of sufficient impact to motivate politicians to seek remedies that lie in the direction of working with our European neighbours. In the febrile atmosphere of the moment, though, we could see sentiment turn the other way, as the blame for any hardship is focused on the European Union.

If that led to an upswelling of hostility, we could find the nation embracing isolation, despite the consequences. Once such a mood takes hold, policy is not necessarily going to be driven by rational people.

Furthermore, as the EU and its Member States are force to invest in systems and infrastructure to deal with the UK as a third country, they will become increasingly less interested in helping us to find solutions to what they will regard as self-inflicted wounds. The post-exit window of opportunity, therefore, may be very short.

One hopes that that prospect could focus minds over the next few months, lending urgency to the search for a workable solution to Brexit. But, as we see from the latest contributions from Mrs May and M. Barnier, the gap seems to be so great as to be unbridgeable.

Despite that, we can all live in hope that a last-minute solution will be found. But only fools will embrace the current situation or look upon it with any degree of optimism. We are sleepwalking into a political crisis, the like of which has not been experienced in living memory.

From our point of view, we must never accept that a "no deal" is the end of the matter, or abandon hope that, some day, we can get things moving in the direction of the Efta/EEA option. This requires an intensification of effort, to overcome the ignorance and misinformation that has so damaged perception of the option.

But this is the time also to think seriously about personal survival. It is not at all alarmist to be thinking in terms of stockpiling food and other essentials, including torches, and the basics in life from toilet paper to washing up liquid and even, closer to Brexit day, bottled water.

The very fact that we are thinking in such terms, though, underlines the extraordinary situation in which we find ourselves. In a time of plenty, and in the absence of war or natural catastrophe, to be thinking in terms of shortages of food and other essentials says volumes about how badly the Brexit process has been managed so far.

And, for this, there must be a political price to pay. Come what may, things can never be the same again. There must be a reckoning – the sooner the better while there are still opportunities for peaceful change.