After five months of confusion over what Brexit will mean in practice the British Prime Minister Theresa May has finally given some substance to her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line. The Conservative Party conference this week was an opportunity for the Tory Brexiteers in the British Cabinet to finally spell out the direction they plan to take.
According to Ms May the British government will trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017. This will begin the two-year process of negotiation by the end of which the British state will have left the EU. The British Prime Minister has now set the British state on the path to a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
This means that Britain will leave the single market. The emphasis in May’s speech was on independence and sovereignty with Britain taking back full control of immigration. Consequently, there will be no free movement of workers as the barriers to immigrants are raised and reinforced. The British Prime Minister also said that Britain will leave the European Court of Justice which is the ultimate enforcer of European Laws. The Tories are already committed to scrapping the Human Rights Act and leaving the European Court of Human Rights. At the same time Tory Ministers were talking up the likelihood that Britain will leave the customs union.
By insisting that Britain pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ Theresa May has set Britain on a collision course with the EU, in which Ireland, north and south, is regarded as collateral damage. She has moved from supporting the Remain side in the referendum last June to cow-towing to the right-wing of her own party.
In the months since the Brexit vote there has been widespread concern that the border would become an international frontier. There were those who hoped that Britain would opt for a ‘soft’ option. The examples of the border between Norway and Sweden and the EU relationship with Switzerland were frequently promoted. In her speech at the Conservative Party conference Mrs May rubbished both.
As a result, the British approach now puts in doubt the maintenance of the ‘common travel area’ between Ireland and Britain, which has existed since 1923. It also raises serious questions about the shape of the border post Brexit; the free movement of citizens; the likely impact on cross-border and bilateral trade, which accounts for one billion euro a week between Ireland and Britain and which supports 200,000 jobs.
On Tuesday Edgar Morgenroth, an adviser to the Irish Government warned that the British stance ‘imperils the Common Travel Area’. He also warned against the belief that Dublin could negotiate some form of bi-lateral agreement with the British on trade and the movement of people. Under EU rules he pointed out that there are ‘no bilaterals here. It’s always the 27 EU countries and the UK.’
Also at the weekend Prime Minister May called for preparatory work to be carried out between the EU and Britain in advance of March to facilitate a smoother process of negotiation. The response from the EU was immediate and dismissive. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council rejected any suggestion of preliminary talks. The EU Commission has also warned Britain that there will be no informal discussions prior to Article 50 being triggered. And media reports also suggested that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel is against informal negotiations.
So, the battle lines on Brexit have been drawn.
The Tories are determined to exit the EU. They are also intent on pulling the North and Scotland out of the EU, despite both having voted overwhelmingly to Remain. Ms May told her party conference that there will be ‘no opt-out from Brexit.’ The Remain votes in the North and in Scotland are to be set aside. The Parliamentary convention that the Westminster Parliament will only legislate on matters affecting either the North or Scotland or Wales with the consent of the local Assemblies is also to be ignored.
Martin McGuinness insisted at the weekend that the Remain vote in the North must be respected in any negotiation. He warned that the British government’s confrontational approach to Brexit threatens the North’s economy and the Good Friday and subsequent agreements. While both he and Arlene Foster are committed to doing their best for citizens the reality is that the DUP is committed to Brexit and this makes the political relationships and situation more problematic.
At the same time two legal challenges began on Tuesday in Belfast High Court. One is being taken by Raymond McCord and the other by a group of MLAs, including Sinn Féin MLA John O Dowd, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood, Steven Agnew of the Green Party and David Ford the Alliance leader. Their legal team will contest the legality of the process and they will argue that the North cannot leave the EU without the consent of the Assembly.
Also on Tuesday in its response to Brexit the Irish government finally produced a series of proposals, including the establishment of an all-island Civic Dialogue. In July the Taoiseach had promised to bring the all-island dialogue forward in September. He failed to do this. Which is why I accused him of dithering on this issue.
The establishment parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil seem to be mesmerised by what the British government is going to do as opposed to what the Irish government should be doing.
Irish national interests have to be protected and promoted. The all-island civic dialogue will begin its deliberations in Dublin on November 2nd and will involve civic society groups, trade unions, business groups as well as political representatives.
However, its overriding priority must be to advocate on behalf of the remain vote in the North. It’s worth remembering that 56% of the electorate backed remaining within the EU and 44% voted to leave. A strong majority. The Irish government must defend this vote. Last week when I raised this with the Taoiseach, as I have on previous occasions, he agreed that he would advocate in support of the Remain vote in the North.
Our focus in the time ahead must be to agree an all-island strategy that challenges Brexit. Martin McGuinness said at the weekend that Brexit is not a done deal. He’s right. So, on Saturday October 8th, if you oppose Brexit, join the campaign group, Border Communities Against Brexit, in its day of action. Protests will be held at six locations right along the border from Derry to Dundalk