If Northern Ireland can stay in the Single Market, the rest of the UK can too

Today's revelations - if true - pose huge questions for both Brexiteers and unionists.

Well, there you have it. The UK is ‘staying in the EU in all but name’. One part of it, at least. 

If reports from Ireland’s public broadcaster RTE are true, Northern Ireland will effectively remain in both the Single Market and the Customs Union after Brexit.

The plans suggest there will be ‘no regulatory divergence’ between the two jurisdictions on the island. After a year and a half of hard Brexiteers saying Single Market membership would be a traitorous denial of the EU vote, it’s quite an about-turn from the government.

The logic is clear: to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ – a physical, staffed separation between the North and the Republic, which many fear would re-open what was previously a settled question about the need for free travel and trade within the island of Ireland.

But the implications of today’s reports can’t be overstated. Brexiteers have long condemned staying in the Single Market as de facto EU membership.

Indeed, Sir Paul Jenkins, the government’s most senior legal official for eight years until 2014, has said that for the UK to stay close to the Single Market and Customs Union it would be like EU membership ‘in all but name‘.

And he has a point, actually. You follow the EU’s rules, and in doing so, people, goods and services can travel around the area as if it were ‘one territory’ – without any internal borders or other regulatory obstacles.

Of course, leaving the Single Market and Customs Union means there must be borders somewhere. The question is where, and who you p*ss off in the process (no variation is particularly easy for May).

If all the UK – including Northern Ireland – leaves the Customs Union, there will have to be a border separating the Republic and the north.

If Northern Ireland remains part of the trade ‘club’, there will have to be a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to monitor goods, would be ‘tariffed’ on arrival in mainland Britain after the latter left the Customs Union.

For Brexiteers, Northern Ireland now poses a problem: if the latter can stay in the EU ‘in all but name’, then claims that the rest of the UK doing so would be in breach of the referendum mandate are null and void. If NI can do it, why not England, Wales or Scotland? 

The SNP, for example, have long called for a special deal for Scotland – something that was supposed to be impossible, according to Ministers. As the BBC reported last October:

“Scotland will not get a “special deal” when the UK leaves the EU, the Scottish secretary has told MSPs.

“David Mundell told Holyrood’s Europe committee that it was “absolutely wrong” to suggest individual areas or industries could win separate deals.”

For unionists, today’s leaked deal creates a challenge. If Scotland is now dragged out of the Single Market and Customs Union against its will, it will not be out of necessity. Northern Ireland has shown a special arrangement is possible. It will have been dragged out against its will despite an alternative being on the cards. That will be an indirect boost to the independence movement.

The same goes for Northern Ireland. With Britain out of the Single Market and Customs Union, but Northern Ireland still essentially members, the North will be economically and politically far closer to the Republic than to the rest of the UK after Brexit. And with some sort of west coat border checking goods from NI, those national divisions will be even stronger.

Whatever the case, these plans – if true – are likely to give new energy to the campaign against a hard Brexit. And a big headache for both unionists and Brexiteers.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

Pic: Theresa May with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster (CC)

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3 Responses to “If Northern Ireland can stay in the Single Market, the rest of the UK can too”

  1. patrick newman

    Mrs May is now singing “I did it Norway!”

  2. Alasdair Macdonald

    What is the difference between Mrs Foster’s stance and that of Mr Corbyn? She does not want NI to be treated differently from the rest of the UK. Mr Corbyn considers that Scotland (and presumably Wales and Northern Ireland are ‘countries of England’ (sic) and that ‘there cannot be different laws in different parts of the country’ (in relation to the demands of the Scottish Government for a specific deal for Scotland, given that 62% of us voted REMAIN.) Now, since the union of 1707 there has always been a separate and distinct Scottish legal system. As a member of the House of Commons for many years prior to devolution, he must have been aware that separate legislation was often passed for Scotland (e.g. in education) or that Scotland was excluded from particular provisions of Acts or had specific sections of Acts.
    Given that Labour’s policy is that the UK leaves the Single Market and the Customs Union, surely Labour must support Mrs Foster’s party’s action in attempting to hinder and concession Mrs May has allegedly made, with regard to a Customs Union?
    Labour has not distinguished itself since the EU referendum. It has equivocated, it has avoided issues, it has supported the Government. It is time for it to begin to set out the bones and some of the meat of a clearer policy

  3. Dave Johnson

    For crying out loud, stop digging around for ways Britain can remain under the thumb of the billion dollar (sorry, euro) PLC consortium that calls itself a ‘Union’ ! This publication calls itself ‘left foot forward’ and that may be a fair choice of title, so long as one ignores the direction the left foot equates with ‘forward’ !

    I shudder when I see intelligent cooperation based analyses veering toward believing that one little tiny country can overthrow trillions of dollars of capital by ‘reforming’ the privatisation and assset stripping consortium that currently controls much of Europe.

    How on earth can any left wing tending group think it sensible to sign back in to agreements that assert the total right of massive PLCs to ‘bid’ for the chance to profit from the ripest cherries among a countries infrastructure?

    How can /anyone/ (except a milionaire CEO) think it a good thing to bow down to rules that insist any service a country’s state provides for its population must be broken up into neat little units that then have to play-act a bidding game (at great expense) in order to allow profit seekers to join in? Rules that make it ludicrously expensive for a country to just provide its own population with services that should just be natural infrastructure monopolies, things like health, communication, education, roads and rail; all of those are mandatorially up for grabs and have to stay that way once the deal is signed.

    This just doesn’t fit with any intelligent hope that a few countries might actually begin to show the world how cooperation beats competition every time, and then begin to cooperate among themselves to form a TRUE European UNION.

    We can’t change that monster, stop thinking that bending down for it will somehow alleviate the regime we currently suffer under. It won’t. Best case it might slow the process down by a few years.
    A much better idea is to get rid of the current bunch and start to do things properly.

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