As today’s predictable fuss about the border in Ireland post Brexit rumbles on, it has brought a deeper and more troubling issue into view. The British Government is now not actually trying to do Brexit, at least in a practical sense.

Note that I do not mean here that the Government has decided to aim for a No Deal Brexit. For that too would actually require a decision and planning of some sort.

I instead mean that the Government is instead so completely becalmed, blunted, riven with splits, and incapable of doing anything, that it cannot advance anywhere.

Let us look at this in light of today’s border in Ireland issue.

When the initial political deal on the border question was struck – with UK agreement! – in early December it outlined three options for the border (more detail here).

The first was that the overall UK-EU exit deal would be constructed in such a way for there to be no need for border infrastructure (this would imply close regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU – something that the UK Government does not seem to want as it advocates leaving the Single Market and Customs Union).

The second option was that the UK itself would propose “specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland”, generally understood to be a reference to the idea that technology could somehow avoid a physical border (this stems from the optimistic thinking of the likes of the Legatum Institute).

The third – only as a fallback to be used in the case of the first two not working – is “maintaining full alignment [with] those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation”.

Today – two months on – where are we?

We are no closer to knowing whether the first option is viable, because any more detail on how the UK wants a future trade relationship to look has not been forthcoming (it seems the Cabinet away day agreed to some variant of managed divergence – that the EU has already ruled out – May’s speech Friday might tell us more). According to this thread by Faisal Islam it looks like the FCO had a vague go at answering the second point, but got nowhere. And so we are back with the third option. The European Commission can work on that, and it did. It still sees this option as a fallback.

The reaction?

No one ought to be surprised said Irish Foreign Minister Coveney. But Tory MP David Jones and Times hack Bruno Waterfield both called it “annexation” of Northern Ireland by the EU. Some of the British press (Foster, Crisp) at Barnier’s press conference threw their toys out of the pram, and May at PMQs said she rejects the text. But of course not one of the complainers had any answer as to actually what they do want, or how they propose to solve the border issue.

There are solutions of sorts: either the border is to be hardened, or moved to the Irish Sea, or the UK Government’s Brexit position has to be softened. But none of those options is palatable to the UK Government, because every one of them leaves some group feeling angry (essentially: everyone in Ireland if the former, the DUP and their supporters if the second, and May’s hard core Brexiters if the third). So no decision is made. No planning is done. And the clock ticks down further towards 29th March 2019 when Article 50 expires.

All you get is one huge collective whinge from the British politico-journalist class instead, smug enough that they’re still cleverer than johnny foreigner and the European Commission.

It is not just on Ireland that signs of a determination to not make progress can be seen. The FT reports that Barnier is frustrated that he has seen little of Davis. A vote in the House of Commons on the Customs Union has been delayed until April, and the Repeal Bill has not passed the Lords yet. Earlier this month the UK Government gave up even trying to replicate 759 trade agreements, instead just hoping to be treated like the EU by the rest of the world a while longer instead.

Where does all of this leave us?

I had long assumed the UK would play along with the Brexit process. And I suppose it still is doing so formally, if not actually in everyday reality. That there has not been a negotiation walkout or some major breakdown yet is testimony to that, somehow. But behind the scenes this process is not working. Even the minor issues are not being solved, because the UK cannot solve them.

The mountain of issues to scale is horribly high and the time to do so is terribly short, and the Commission has understood this. The UK Government has not even turned to face the mountain yet, let alone plan or execute its ascent. In fact the UK Government is not even trying. Whatever happens next?


  1. in reference to your observation that HM’s government has more or less given up trying to replicate the legion of bilateral treaties and agreements which the EU had negotiated over the years, this issue was sadly- amusingly highlighted recently when the UK government attempted to prepare the paperwork for an aviation agreement to replace the EU-US open skies agreement for when the UK leaves the EU in march 2019, only to be told in very forthright terms by the US’s FAA that simply doing a cut’n’paste with the letters ‘EU’ rubbed out and replaced with ‘UK’ wasn’t going to do the trick and that a whole new bilateral agreement would have to be negotiated from scratch, with the inclusion of such a ton of restrictive caveats (such as all UK airlines flying into the US having to be majority-owned by UK-resident shareholders, uh-oh) that the UK negotiators have simply given up for now and are now gunning for the UK government to, ahem, cherry-pick continuing membership of the EU aviation protocol which governs the air transport agreement between the EU and USA.
    no wonder ryan air is now including a brexit clause to the cross-border tickets it will sell from the end of this month onwards for flights post-brexit, the fear that planes may not fly is now legitimate.

  2. Lap Leong

    I really have an issue with this sentiment: “All you get is one huge collective whinge from the British politico-journalist class instead, smug enough that they’re still cleverer than johnny foreigner and the European Commission.”

    I know you’ve been a longstanding supporter of Scottish Independence, but the whole reason why Brits called the Draft treaty an “annexation” is clear: Northern Ireland will have a Sea Border and be involved in the SM/CU with the ROI representing their interests. Of course, this is the best and most valid solution, but if you’re a Unionist Government it’s nothing short of possibly infringing the UK’s territorial integrity. Something that the EU has never done or has the inclination to do (look at Scotland). Thus, the surprise and anger over the Draft Treaty (which is right to put NI in the SM/CU). It’s no surprise that some Brits are angry. Imagine if Dumfries or Orkney were to be in the British Domestic Market with no ScoGov input?

    What’s more, partisans (remain and leave) have failed to see why there’s no progress in the Brexit debate. It’s not just about British exceptionalism and arrogant nationalism, it’s about the consistent and harmful skepticism that the average British Voter (Remain and Leave) has about making trade-offs. Unless you change this, there will be no progress. The government (and the opposition) is merely the representation of the people’s misguided mindset. Trying to “force” the government into making a decision without engaging with public opinion, angry voters are going to make this cleavage much more poisonous. That’s not to say the Commission is responsible for this (it is the UK Government’s) but being more sensitive would probably help.

    I don’t know how to answer the questions, but I think the anger around common British false beliefs is going to make anything different.

    • Desmond O’Toole

      This is the legal text of the political agreement that was made by Theresa May, on behalf of the UK, and the European Union just a few short months ago. The faux outrage that has greeted this draft text was entirely to be expected, both in its dreary predictability and its profound dishonesty. I think John is onto something here: a weak British PM unable to lead on Brexit, a profoundly divided Tory government unable to deliver it, and an unsettled population largely disinterested in what this all means. In such circumstances, sitting on your arse and doing nothing has become the default, hence the adults from Brussels stepping into the space and laying out the choices that need to be made.

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