Irish border issue a trap for incompetent UK negotiators – British MEP

The Brexit deal is in turmoil yet again, as a storm brews over the draft agreement approved by Theresa May’s cabinet. Is the draft what the Brexiteers wanted, and is it really better than a ‘No-Deal’? We ask William Dartmouth, member of the European Parliament.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: William Dartmouth, member of the European Parliament, welcome to the show, great to have you with us. So the draft Brexit deal that is currently on the table, it seems to offer too few EU ties to please Remainers and not enough independence from Europe to please the Leavers. Is it a working compromise or does it only serve to annoy everybody?

William Dartmouth: Great to be here, thank you. Well, it’s rather amazing that the British government has managed to produce something that satisfies absolutely nobody. All the Remainers don’t like it, and most of the Leavers don’t like it, including me, for whatever that is worth. And the key point about it is that, forget about the compromise or no compromise, it’s not going to get through the House of Commons. On today’s arithmetic, anyway.

SS:So is the European Union interested in a speedy, “by the end of this week” resolution to the question of the deal? I mean, do you think May can push for it in Brussels, threatening a no-deal scenario in case the deal doesn’t pass the EU vote?

WD: Well, as I understand it, British Prime Minister Mrs. May is in Brussels, going to see Mr. Juncker, explaining to him (he’s a very intelligent man, by the way, he gets a very bad press) that the deal as it is presently constituted will not go through the British House of Commons, and, therefore, can he please make some sort of adjustments to enable her to do so. Now, having said all that, that’s the context. Now, the European Union has a terrible, terrible record of being completely rigid, completely intransigent and completely unhelpful to member states, we’re a departing member state, but to all member states, which have got problems. We’re seeing that with Italy now. And I suspect that yet again Mrs. May is going to go away with absolutely nothing, and then, there will be a no deal. Now, I rather favour no deal, which isn’t a no deal at all, it’s a deal under World Trade Organisation rules. But perhaps you could ask me about that a little bit later on, if you want.

SS:Yeah, but what happens if it doesn’t go through the first time around? Will it be the fall of Theresa May?   

WD: Well, you’re asking me what’s going to happen at the British House of Commons, so, basically, this is just a prediction, but if it doesn’t go through the first time around, they can bring it up a second time, and it might have a shot at getting through the second time, but there would have to be certain modifications to it. And people aren’t stupid, I mean, people aren’t as stupid as the European Commission thinks that people are. And any modifications have to be real, that can’t just be little, phony, false modifications. So to stand a chance of the deal, I dislike the word “deal”, the draft agreement, getting through the House of Commons, it has to be modified, and modified in a realistic, and material, and substantial way.

SS:So wait, so can the European Union wait that long? Until this goes through the first time, and then it’s re-adjusted, or renegotiated, and it goes through the second time, or maybe not, can the EU wait around?

WD: Well, the fact is that the UK is not leaving the EU until March 29th. So that’s really quite a long time. In addition, the British legislative system is such that it can actually react pretty quickly, so they could probably put it out at least twice in December. The real point is not about the EU waiting, it’s about the EU being a bit realistic. I mean, they’ve imposed this Carthaginian peace, they’ve created a sort of a new Versailles treaty on the UK, and it isn’t going to stick! So, sorry, it actually won’t get through the House of Commons, and even if it did, it won’t stick for any palpable period of time! So the European Union have kind of outsmarted themselves. I mean, I just made the important point about it not getting through the House of Commons. There are 56 Conservative MPs who have already publicly stated that they’re going to vote against it. Now, they may whittle this down a bit to about 40. But it’s not the Conservative MPs who’re going to vote against it, which is the point, the point is that the Labour party is going to vote against it. It looks like the Democratic Unionists are going to vote against it, and all the opposition parties will vote against it. So it’s about 40 or 50 votes short of passing, even on the most favourable predictions.  

SS:So if what you’re saying happens, and the Commons fail May’s deal, will there be a second referendum on Brexit?

WD: Well, I think that there certainly shouldn’t be, because we’ve already had a referendum, and also, the European Union has got the most appalling record of not accepting referendums. For instance, everyone is talking about Ireland at the moment, well, Ireland voted against the Lisbon treaty, and they were made to vote again until they, as it were, came up with what the European Union saw as being the right answer. I mean, is this a tennis match? I mean, do we have best of 3, like in Women’s Championship, tennis? Do we have it, maybe, best of 5, like we have it in men’s international tennis? I mean, all that’s happened with the so-called second referendum, this has been a plan cooked up by a variety of people who all thought a great deal better, who didn’t accept the results of the first referendum in the first place, and are trying to reverse it by fair means or foul. And a second referendum is simply foul. It absolutely stinks, and I very much hope that the British House of Commons stops being so elitist, recognises the referendum and just throws this concept of a second referendum absolutely out. It makes no sense at all, and it’s profoundly anti-democratic. To call it a people’s vote, which is what people do, is the worst kind of mislabelling. If it was advertising, this would all be head up.  

SS:So if we go back to May, May’s line is that a bad deal is better than no deal at all. Do you think this argument could maybe help her push the deal as it is through the House of Commons?

WD: Well, first of all, I… You’re kind enough to interview me, so I can’t resist giving you my own view, which is that no deal is much better than bad deal, and no deal is actually a misnomer, it’s a very misleading way of describing things. A no-deal simply means that we would continue, that we would trade under World Trade Organization terms, the so-called WTO terms, just as 6 of the 10 biggest exporters to the European Union do, 11 of the top 20 biggest exporters to the European Union do today. So, basically, as I see it, and perhaps I can give my own point of view, I’ll give you my opinion a bit later, as I see it, the British government and the British establishment, and Mrs. May have worked themselves up this hysteria about the so-called no deal, which itself is incredibly misleading, as I just said. And in so doing, they’ve allowed the European Union to impose completely draconian terms on the UK, which won’t last anyway, and which Parliament won’t let go through. They are the people who should go away and think again.

SS: Sure, but a no-deal Brexit, which you believe is better than May’s deal, is seen by many as the ultimate doomsday scenario, with, like, no food, and other supplies running short and flights grounded. From your perspective, how likely is this outcome at the current stage?  

WD: Well, I mean, there is a consensus at the House of Commons against a no-deal. But I just have to say that what you’ve just said, – and obviously, you’re just quoting people, so I am not criticising you, – is, frankly, complete rubbish, actually. It’s complete rubbish from beginning to end. And it’s all part of the fear scenario, with which the British establishment have sought to frustrate the will of the British people from the very beginning. We heard all this rubbish in the referendum, and we’re just hearing more of the same.

SS:But as for now, I mean, the post-Brexit transitional period is supposed to last till the end of 2020 but can be extended under the current draft deal if UK and EU agree to do so. Does this leave an open window for these Brexit negotiations to last forever?

WD: Yes, I think, it probably does. And the length of the transition… I mean, first of all, to have a transition period is very sensible. And certainly I think that, by the way. However, the disadvantages of very long transition period, which is what we seem to be looking at now, is, number one, exactly as you stated, negotiations should just go on, and on, and on, and on. And you know, it’s a bit like an exam. If there is no deadline, there is no real incentive for things to ever finish. The other point, which is a practical point, is that, as I understand it, the UK would continue to pay into the European Union budget at the very large levels that we are paying in now, throughout the transition period. So a longer transition period means more payment, longer periods of payment into the EU budget. And, of course, that was one of the reasons why we wanted to leave in the first… One of the reasons why people wanted to leave, if I may say so.

SS:The Irish question seems to pose an unsolvable problem on London. I mean, the EU and the UK are seemingly signing up to the idea of no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, at least under the current draft deal. That might force the UK to stay in the European customs union. How is that compatible with the idea of Brexit and Britain’s sovereignty?

WD: Well, it is, of course, highly incompatible with the idea of Brexit and Britain’s sovereignty, you’ve absolutely put your finger onto it. Worse still, it’s highly incompatible with the Union of the United Kingdom – the United Kingdom is a union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So of course it’s incompatible, and that’s why the Democratic Unionists don’t like it. But I’d like to make a slightly different point, or just to share with you a couple of basic facts. The fact is, that already, already, at the moment, as we speak, the Irish border, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it’s already a taxation border, it’s already a VAT border, it’s already an excise border, and it’s already a currency border, they have different currencies. And all that – without having a hard border! In addition to that, since 1921, there’s never been a hard border in Northern Ireland! Even in the time of all the troubles, there were military checkpoints, but it wasn’t a hard border, with, you know, barbed wire and search lights and people with dogs. The whole matter of the Irish border, which was never discussed in the referendum, not even by the Cameron government, which disgracefully, disgracefully, in my view, was completely one-sided. The matter of the Northern Ireland border is, in my view, simply a trap that was set up by the European Union negotiators which the British government has fallen right into. And all these British government civil servants, they simply don’t know what they’re doing! The whole lot of them should never be allowed near any negotiation again, not even to buy a flat for themselves!

SS:But Theresa May was not a Brexit warrior to start with, even before the referendum – do you think her personal convictions, I mean, being cold to the idea of Brexit in general, are playing a role in her decision to bring forth a soft agreement?

WD: Well, obviously, I mean, I can’t speak for Mrs. May’s state of mind, but what I can say, in terms of hard evidence, is that Mrs. May made a speech in Lancaster House some months ago, which was very statesman-like, spelled out everything and would have made… The terms of which, which were being put forth then, would have made a lot of sense. Since then, she’s just completely reneged on them, completely reneged on them. And this point was being made with great clarity by the former Secretary Boris Johnson, actually, in his resignation speech. So why she’s done this, why she’s attempted to bunt her Cabinet into these non-agreements which are entirely inimical and against the British national interests, is in fact rather mysterious. Because don’t forget, this is the second time that this has happened! She tried to bunch them into the Chequers, the so-called Chequers proposal, which died at death, actually, because the European Commission would not accept them. And she’s tried to bounce her Cabinet into these proposals! So what her state of mind is, I really don’t know, but what I can say is that we in the UK have unfortunately been cursed with an absolutely rotten set of negotiators, and the Irish border is just a trap that was laid, it shouldn’t have mattered anything, any sense of good will could actually get around this. I mean, one point is that 90% of the exports and imports between the Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland go by sea anyway, we’re talking about a tiny-tiny-tiny… Sorry, in the context of the British economy, which is a £2.5 trillion economy, we’re talking about a tiny-tiny element, which just simply isn’t material. Should never have been allowed to become an issue, and certainly not in the way which it is right now.

SS:Alright, so one of the major themes in the Brexit debate was the issue of immigration – and, as Theresa May puts it, the draft deal means Europeans would no longer be able to “to skip the line”, while Britain would finally have all the say on who gets to stay. At least, after the transition period, that is. Is the draft deal on immigration delivering what Brexiteers wanted on this front?

WD: Well, I would put it slightly differently. What the argument was really about was sovereignty: was the UK a sovereign nation or not? One of the manifestations of sovereignty is being able to have immigration controls, now, and the immigration… Because don’t forget that any EU member state, that citizens of any EU member state have the absolute right to live, work and settle in another EU member state, and we made the UK a very attractive country for people to come to, and literally millions of people have, and in a very short space of time. So of course it was an issue. As far as this agreement is concerned, a lot of us don’t trust Theresa May about anything, and probably not on this either. But on the face of it, this is one of the slightly less bad aspects of it. It does seem, from the narration in her speech, that we will be able to have some control about immigration. But this has already excited what journalists call a backlash, and the important thing is that the Prime Minister stands firm against the immigration junkies in the Confederation of British Industry and the mass forces of the immigration lobby, which is very-very strong in the UK.

SS:So the UK has a growing trade deficit with the EU, but its trade with pretty much the rest of the world seems to be way more balanced. That said, how difficult would it be to double down on that if the transition period effectively prevents the UK from seeking its own trade deals? And when it finally gets to working on those, how long will they take to sign and negotiate?

WD: Well, that’s actually a great question, but it’s actually worse than that. Forgetting about the transition period, as far as I can make out, and I have a background in trade, as far as I can make out, this agreement doesn’t permit… So as long as we remain in the customs union, which seems to be pretty open-ended, we are not able to enter into trade agreements on our own account. Now, you don’t have to be able to, you don’t have to have a trade agreement in order to be able to trade. I mean, for example, there has never been a trade agreement between the United States and the UK, but there’s tremendous, tens, hundreds of billions worth of trade which goes between the two countries. But having said that, the ability to have trade agreements, to have the ability to have your… To be able to enter into trade agreements, is obviously very advantageous, and one of the huge flaws of the May agreement is that this makes it impossible for the foreseeable future.

SS:So let’s take a quick look at…

WD: You put your finger on it. Great question, if I may say so.

SS:Thanks. So let’s take a look at the other side of the deal. The EU doesn’t seem to be losing too much in case the current draft deal goes forth, while that’s hardly the case for the UK. How did London fail so hard at negotiating a more favourable deal? Can anything more balanced be worked out during the transition period, with a foundation like this?   

WD: Well, I mean, on current form, the answer is no. I mean, you know, this is a bit like, you know, you’re assessing race horse 4 or something, and you say: is this horse going to win the Kentucky Derby suddenly? I mean, I really can’t see the British government being able to come up with anything very much better. Now, in theory, there is an opportunity to renegotiate after this period of time is over. But A, the British government seems to be rotten negotiators, and B, their ability to negotiate is very much circumscribed and limited by the agreement. So, I mean, I am very pessimistic. I’m looking forward to being optimistic, I’d like to be optimistic, I’m an optimistic person, but I am sunk in pessimism on this front, I have to say.

SS:So do you think the EU is trying to not only secure its financial interests, but also, sort of, have a bit of vengeance on the UK for leaving the project?

WD: Yes, I think so, now, I think that the EU Commission is being determined to administer a sort of punishment beating, to use a phrase that has been used before. And the Council of Ministers and the member states should have stopped them, but they don’t seem to be doing that. I mean, just to give you one indication, the UK is the largest importer by volume of cars and motor vehicles made in Germany. You know, we are an important market for the EU, and incidentally we run a £96 billion deficit in goods with the EU. So we’re in the ridiculous situation of paying to have access to a market on which we have a gigantic deficit! The deficit we have is roughly equivalent to, for example, the entire economy of Ghana, just to give you one, sort of, indication of it. You know, the British Governments have actually mishandled the entire thing! Very simply put. And are they going to handle it any better? Probably not.

SS:So briefly, how does the draft agreement affect the regular folks out there and their wallets? What price would Britons have to pay for whatever independence the country ends up getting?

WD: Well, I’ve argued, I’ve argued and I’ve written a book about it, I don’t think many people have read it, but I have written a book about it… I’ve argued that the best deal available for us with the European Union is to leave without an agreement and to continue to trade with the European Union on the World Trade Organization terms, just as China, the United States and, indeed, Russia do today. And the three biggest exporters to the European Union are China, Russia and the United States, they don’t have trade agreements. That is what I think we should do. Will the government do it? I don’t know. But the fact that this agreement, this draft agreement, will not get through the House of Commons does give people an opportunity to have a second or third thought. But there is a mass hysteria about not going out without an agreement, and I think you mentioned some of the things in your question earlier on. So who knows what’s going to be happening, but I tell you, I’m very pessimistic, I am most of all pessimistic for the EU, because they don’t gain anything very much by humiliating a country that wants to leave. In the long term. In the short term, it makes the negotiations… Yeah.

SS:Right, so… Thank you very much for your outlook and for your insight on whatever awaits Britain, that’s it for this programme, we were talking to William Dartmouth, member of the European Parliament, discussing the uncertainties surrounding the Brexit deal.