Why Northern Ireland can’t afford a ‘do or die’ Brexit

nick.wright.jpgBoris Johnson is demanding that the Withdrawal Agreement is scrapped and renegotiated, and is insisting that he won’t meet EU leaders until they agree to this. The major source of contention is the backstop, which guarantees an open border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit, but ties the UK to the EU’s Customs Union. In a new Brexit Insights paper, Nicholas Wright assesses the politics of the backstop and ‘no deal’, and what all this means for Northern Ireland. 

During his leadership campaign, Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaged in an increasingly shrill rhetorical arms race with his rival, Jeremy Hunt, over who will be toughest with the EU in delivering Brexit. In particular, his ire was focused on the hated ‘Irish backstop’ which has come to symbolise all that Brexiters loathe about the Withdrawal Agreement. Indeed, Mr Johnson has promised to remove this element of the deal, declaring that if the EU will not renegotiate, then the UK will leave on 31 October, ‘deal or no deal’, suggesting that the costs of exiting in such circumstances will be ‘vanishingly inexpensive if you prepare’. Such claims fly in the face of reality and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is here that the consequences of Brexit and the trade-offs implicit in its delivery are most starkly revealed.

Since the beginning of the Brexit process, the UK government has been trying to reconcile the ‘Irish Trilemma’: UK departure from the EU’s single market and customs union; an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and no new trade or regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. You can have any two, but a combination of all three is impossible. This matters because the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and all that has resulted from it were predicated on the open and invisible border and shared regulatory space that come with EU membership. These have underpinned efforts in Northern Ireland to chart a new pathway, not least by reducing the prominence and difficulty of complex questions around identity. Doing so has not been easy, something demonstrated by the collapse of power-sharing and suspension of the Assembly in Stormont. The prospect of changes to border arrangements – and particularly anything necessitating the re-establishment of any border infrastructure – therefore risks further undermining a fragile equilibrium that reflects Northern Ireland’s ‘relative peace but minimum reconciliation’. Continue reading

Article 50: What to expect when you’re expecting (…Brexit negotiations)

Shortly before 12.30pm this afternoon Article 50 was triggered and Brexit negotiations formally got under way. In this post Nick Wright looks ahead to what we can expect to happen over the next two years. He suggests that, whatever the technical detail, Brexit will first and foremost be a political process and will require pragmatism and goodwill if it is to be conducted smoothly and with minimum disruption.

And so the ‘phoney war’ of the last nine months is finally over. The now infamous Article 50 has finally been triggered.

Earlier this afternoon Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU, delivered to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, the UK’s formal notification of its intent to leave the European Union. Their brief conversation over (it apparently lasted around a minute), the two-year countdown to Britain’s departure from the EU can officially begin.

However, if you were expecting David Davis and his negotiating team to have their bags packed, ready to jump on the first Eurostar to Brussels to start the difficult (and likely fraught) process of disentangling the UK from the EU, think again.

After many months of waiting, there is still more to come as the Brussels machine cranks into action and the other 27 member states seek to ensure Britain’s departure does not do terminal damage to the European integration project.

So what happens now?

Stage 1: The EU’s Brexit choreography

The EU’s key institutions, including the Council and Commission, have been preparing for the commencement of negotiations since virtually the day after the referendum result.

Donald Tusk has already taken soundings in EU27 capitals, while the member states have held a number of informal ‘Brexit Councils’ without the UK. These meetings will have been designed to agree their broad objectives, and to emphasise that ‘in these negotiations the union will act as one’.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s team, headed by former French foreign minister Michel Barnier and his deputy Sabine Weygand, an experienced Commission trade negotiator from Germany, has been in place for some months now. Indeed, Margaritis Chinas, the Commission spokesperson, declared on 13 March that ‘everything is ready on this side’ and ‘we stand ready to launch negotiations quickly’.

Having received the official notification from the UK, Donald Tusk will circulate the proposed ‘negotiating guidelines’ –the basic political principles for the negotiations – among the EU27. These will then be agreed at a European Council summit of EU27 heads of state and government on 29 April.

Following this, the Commission will bring forward its more detailed ‘negotiating directives’ setting out how the negotiations will take place and including a formal mandate to Barnier to proceed. These will be officially confirmed by the EU27 foreign ministers in a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council in May.

Whilst somewhat complicated and involved, this process reflects both the complexity of achieving consensus among the EU27 on the line the EU should take in the negotiations, and the determination of those same member states to keep the Commission under close supervision throughout the process.

Continue reading

The government’s Brexit white paper: a missed opportunity

Nick-WrightOn 2 February the government published its white paper on Brexit, which was intended to provide further detail regarding the overall aims the government would be pursuing once Article 50 has been triggered. Nick Wright assesses this document, concluding that whilst it does expand on some of Theresa May’s key pledges set out in the Lancaster House speech in several areas it remains unclear exactly what the government is seeking. One example of this is the idea of a UK-EU strategic partnership, which is proposed in the white paper but not expanded on. Overall, it is hard not to see the white paper as a missed opportunity.

The government’s Brexit white paper, published in the aftermath of the House of Commons vote on the second reading of the ‘Brexit’ bill, received a mixed response.

Following Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January, the white paper was intended to provide further detail regarding the overall aims the government would be pursuing once Article 50 has been triggered. However, although it does expand to some degree on the Prime Minister’s 12 key pledges, in several important areas it remains unclear precisely what the government is seeking.

This is particularly true on the question of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Here, the white paper makes a potentially significant proposal: to establish a strategic partnership, something Brexit Secretary David Davis also underlined in his statement to the House of Commons. It does not, though, offer any specifics on what such a relationship might look like.

What makes this frustrating is that whilst embryonic and lacking in detail, this is nonetheless an idea deserving of attention. As a foreign policy instrument, strategic partnerships have been an important feature of EU efforts to structure its relationships with key international partners. If properly developed, therefore, a UK-EU strategic partnership could offer the basis for the kind of positive vision for the post-Brexit future the Prime Minister articulated as one of her objectives.

Why not, then, use this as a formal framework for the new UK-EU relationship, enabling co-operation in certain key and clearly defined policy areas to be maintained? And why not use the opportunity of a white paper to signal this agenda boldly and clearly?

Continue reading

Malign influence, lame duck or honest broker? The UK’s role in Europe during the Brexit negotiations

Nick-Wright

The UK will remain a full member of the EU until withdrawal negotiations are completed. In this post Nick Wright explores the roles that Britain might play in EU decision making once Article 50 has been triggered. He considers three possibilities – malign influence, lame duck and honest broker – and concludes that at the moment the second seems most likely, although elements of the other two may also be seen along the way.

Britain remains a full member of the EU until the completion of withdrawal negotiations. It is important to re-state this obvious point because, regardless of the Brexit process, the EU continues to function and therefore the UK continues to have a say (and a vote) on all EU decision-making via the Council of Ministers. The question then is how that will work: how will the dynamics of ‘normal life’ in the Council interact with the Brexit process?

The Council, which agrees all EU legislation in conjunction with the European Parliament, is not a single, unitary body. It exists in a number of ministerial formations covering the range of policy areas dealt with at EU level and is dependent on a complex sub-structure: most policy is decided at the ambassadorial level in the two committees of the Permanent Representatives (Corepers I & II) and the Political and Security Committee. Supporting these are dozens of working parties and technical groups which deal with specific policy questions, ranging from highly technical regulations relating to the Single Market to the implementation of sanctions against Russia.

All member states are represented and involved in continuous negotiations and decision-making across all issues and at every level, and the UK is no exception.

So what happens once Article 50 is triggered? Will the UK still try to influence Council decision-making at all levels? Will it be able to, given the pressure the Brexit negotiations will place on its administrative and diplomatic resources? And how will the EU-27 respond to British efforts to continue to play a role? To help us think about these questions, three simple scenarios are mapped out below.

Continue reading

Achieving a ‘good’ Brexit: what David Cameron needs to do now

Nick-Wright

While formal exit negotiations cannot begin until Britain triggers Article 50, a three-month hiatus while the Conservatives selects a new prime minister will make it harder to achieve a ‘good’ Brexit. With our European partners and the Scottish government already laying down markers for their vision of the future, London risks ceding the initiative before the process has even begun, warns Nick Wright. He sets out the practical steps David Cameron should take to prepare for the forthcoming negotiations.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Even as the Prime Minister was announcing on Friday his intention to stand down, the Scottish First Minister and our soon-to-be former EU partners were responding to the political earthquake wrought by more than 17 million British voters.

Not surprisingly, much attention has been focused on the reaction in Berlin. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, consulting with his fellow foreign ministers from the EEC’s founding states, stressed that they wanted to focus on ‘the future of Europe’. Meanwhile a leaked eight-page strategy paper from the German finance ministry (paywall) revealed that any agreement with the UK must avoid ‘setting wrong incentives’ that might encourage others to head for the exit. Angela Merkel was more emollient, declaring that there was ‘no need to be particularly nasty’ in the negotiations – the UK would not be ‘punished’ for its decision.

One message has been resounding, though: having made our democratic choice, our partners now want us to get on with it.

Their priority, understandably, is stability within the EU and its institutions and ensuring that the departure of one of its bigger states leads neither to disintegration or fragmentation. Their calculation is therefore a simple one: however important positive and friendly relations with a departed UK, they must be achieved within the context of avoiding wider contagion and uncertainty. They may regret our leaving, but our capacity to reach an amicable post-EU settlement depends on our recognising that we are now formally semi-detached, with the gradual but steadily diminishing influence that entails.

Continue reading

Would Whitehall be able to rise to the challenge of Brexit negotiations?

Nick-Wright

Much will be expected of the civil service if Britain votes to leave the EU. Every Whitehall department and diplomats in Brussels will be embroiled in complex negotiations to thrash out a series of new relationships. Without additional resources and expertise, the UK’s ability to obtain the best possible deal may be hampered, writes Nick Wright.

Following a vote to leave the EU, the UK would face an extensive round of highly complex negotiations to agree and manage withdrawal. Given the all-encompassing nature of EU membership, a crucial question is whether Whitehall – particularly the FCO and Cabinet Office – is sufficiently equipped and resourced to achieve a satisfactory outcome (whatever that might entail). In short, given the likely scope and intensity of the negotiations, could Whitehall face a ‘capabilities-expectations gap’ in terms of what it must deliver while simultaneously managing day-to-day government business?

No country has left the EU, so there is no template or precedent to follow. We do know that the negotiations would need to address both British withdrawal and its new relationship with the EU, and be ratified by the remaining EU-27, as well as the UK and European Parliaments. There are several possibilities for this: it could, for example, seek to be part of the European Economic Area (EEA), following the ‘Norwegian’ model (although David Cameron has ruled this out); or instead emulate a more detached ‘Swiss’ relationship through the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). The development of a special, ‘British’ model is also possible as the UK expects ‘more than to be grouped with Norway and Switzerland’ in the event of a Brexit. Whatever the decision, at least three new treaties may be required, giving an idea of the scale of what must be agreed within the two-year notice period set out in Article 50(3) TEU (although there are provisions for this to be extended).

Continue reading