The new leadership of the EU institutions have now been selected...
Regardless of who wins the contest between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the leadership of the Conservative party and becomes our next Prime Minister there are a number of Brexit related issues that have not yet been resolved and there is no evidence yet that either of them have credible solutions.
One very practical issue is how trade across the 310 miles’ border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be policed after 31st October. Leaving the EU means there will ordinarily have to be a hard border with security posts, cameras, document checks and some product checks.
These are standard arrangements on all EU borders with non-members such as Norway where around 1300 lorries cross each day with an average wait of 20 minutes each. Northern Ireland exports up to £3billion worth of goods to the Republic, including meat and dairy goods. The EU is particularly concerned about foodstuffs and livestock because of past incidents of foot and mouth disease and a horse meat scandal.
None of the parties want a hard border and the EU proposed a solution that involved Northern Ireland remaining in the EU Customs Union but the DUP, which is propping up the minority Conservative Government, totally opposed this because it weakened the link between the province and the rest of the UK and might encourage those who want the reunification of Ireland. With that in mind it is feared that a hard border might revive the ‘Troubles’ and undo what was achieved by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Johnson and Hunt have both talked about solving the border issue but so far without any credible solutions. There has been vague talk about technology solving the problem. It has been suggested, for example, that microchips could be fitted to the lorries crossing the border and mobile phone technology could be used to track the goods so they can be checked well away from the border. Boris Johnson has advocated a trusted trader scheme so that businesses with a trustworthy reputation could pass the borders and be checked elsewhere. This sounds credible but there are 300 separate crossing points on the border and the EU is concerned about the possibility of smuggling across some of the more remote ones. We are due to leave the EU on October 31st but no border posts have been built nor alternatives trialed.
Both contenders are suggesting that they will reopen talks with the EU and negotiate for a better deal than Theresa May obtained. The new leader will take office on 24th July and Parliament recesses on 25th, returning on 3rd September, so time is short. EU spokespeople say the deal they agreed with Theresa May is the best and only deal they will offer us. If that remains the case both Johnson and Hunt are prepared to leave without a deal and the former is threatening to withhold the £39 billion payment of UK debts to the EU.
That rings the right bells with the Conservative party members but not with the present Chancellor, Philip Hammond and a majority of the voters. Recent polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the members who will elect the new leader want a no-deal Brexit whilst only 25 % of the UK electorate agrees with them. Nor can the MPs be left out of the picture. Twice a majority of them have voted against a ‘no-deal’ Brexit and it is highly likely that they will attempt to do that again if the new Prime Minister ignores their wishes.
We are facing a constitutional crisis. The Government has the slimmest majority and cannot rely on some of its more liberal MPs. Polls suggest that there may be a small majority in the country for remaining in the EU but supporters of leaving are better organized in the Conservative and the Brexit parties. The only majority in Parliament is against a no deal Brexit but not for any deal currently on the table and the EU seems unlikely to agree any deal other than the one they have already agreed. If ever there was a time for sustained believing prayer that God’s will be done it is now. Beyond that we need to be considering how to build bridges across the Brexit divide and reunite the nation.