In among all the disagreement, there is one thing that is clear. It’s manifestly in everyone’s interest if the UK leaves the EU in an orderly, friendly and constructive way. At this stage though, it seems a distant possibility. A lot is riding on the judgment of the players in the Brexit deal negotiations in the days ahead.
The reason for us being at this point is the very same as for us leaving – reform. Or more precisely, the lack of it.
A thousand years of uninterrupted British sovereignty has taught us one thing. If change isn’t allowed to be a process, it becomes an event. Structures must change. People must evolve their thinking.
Jean-Claude Juncker may recall his words in response to David Cameron’s proposals for reform, or his own statement on the eve of the referendum: “Out is out.” The warning was stark. No surprise. No compromise. No flexibility. The British were given a binary choice. In or out. Defeat or victory. Death or glory. Perhaps he regrets it now? What did he really expect? How little he understands of us or our history.
Britain must leave and it is not the Prime Minister that has decided this - we all have.
We’re leaving because the EU would not listen and would not reform. Yes, it’s difficult and it has risks. Yes, other countries’ leaders gave up on delivering on the mandate of their people. But we won’t. We will honour the vote.
That is the view of an increasing number of MPs from across the Commons, pledging support for a new deal if one comes back.
The Commission must now grasp the reality of the situation. Brexit is going to happen. Could it repeat the intransigence of the last four years by dismissing the Prime Minister’s proposals? Sadly, yes. If they do, it only vindicates our decision to leave. It won’t stop Brexit. It won’t prevent changes to customs declarations and checks on the island of Ireland.
It’s still not too late to secure an agreement. The UK proposal shows how Brexit can honour the undertakings we have to each other. This is true on borders, on the integrity of the single market and customs union and an independent trade policy for the UK. I am pleased that the proposals align with the work of the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission - a group of twenty-three recognised experts in trade, customs and regulation from nine countries (including four EU member states). It could be a way forward. It could secure a deal.
The reality is that no Brexit deal can be achieved if Northern Ireland is never allowed to leave the Customs Union. It is not reasonable to ask the UK to split its territory in two. However, such a deal doesn’t have to result in checks at or near the Northern Ireland border.
What it does mean, is that there must be a special arrangement for Northern Ireland to provide flexibility for all parties to deal with the land border between the UK and EU. Flexibility, Jean-Claude. Flexibility.
There are many obstacles to a deal but the border is not one of them. Customs checks are perfectly compatible with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Some critics have characterised the Government’s proposals as creating two borders for Northern Ireland - one with Ireland and one with the rest of the UK. That’s not correct.
Northern Ireland will be a different customs territory from the EU. Customs declarations and some checks will, therefore, be needed, but these are simply a series of transactions, and there will not be any need for physical infrastructure at the border.
Customs declarations can be filled out electronically. Customs checks will be intelligence-led and targeted and typically occur in less than 1 per cent of transactions. These fiscal checks can take place at companies’ premises. There is no need for an additional infrastructure of any kind.
A world-class trusted trader scheme could be up and running in 10-12 months, with current arrangements being rolled over during any transition period. Technology will enable regulatory checks in seaports on the island of Ireland to become less intrusive, just as the checks made by the single epidemiological unit operating today in the port of Larne are regarded as business-as-usual.
On the island of Ireland, the issue of the border is more than just a practical issue; it is about emotion, history and politics. These important concerns must be understood and respected, but if we are to move forward we need to find solutions that work in a post-Brexit context.
The UK proposals on the Northern Ireland Border are practically and politically possible. A Withdrawal Agreement with Alternative Arrangements will pass the House of Commons; we know that one that traps Northern Ireland in the customs union will not.
To break the Brexit impasse, the Irish Taoiseach and the European Commission need to show flexibility and goodwill. With that, we can get Brexit done, and begin to build new partnerships – on the island of Ireland, and between the UK and EU, and rebuild our politics around a fresh consensus.
Six years ago the British people asked for reform. That opportunity was squandered. That inflexibility the provenance of the referendum result.
Today we ask for a good Brexit for all. The opportunity must be seized. This time, flexibility must be shown.