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The core issue of Brexit is the Irish border. It is a laboratory for all the Brexit issues, according to John Rowland, executive director of Cicero. The main issue is how to resolve the land frontier, in the context of the history of the troubles, with the determination on all sides not to upset the political stability in Ireland.
In her speech in Florence in September last year, Prime Minister Theresa May made clear her plans – the UK would be leaving the customs union, the single market, and European Court of Justice jurisdiction (ECJ). All of this points to a hard border in Ireland.
But, Rowland suggests, if extraordinary solutions are found and compromises made on the North-South issue, it shows what might be possible for wider UK relationship with the EU.
The UK Parliament now has a vote on the divorce deal, and a substantial majority of MPs are remainers. The more influence parliament has, Rowland said, the more pragmatic compromises there could be from government to get the deal ratified. Hence the softening of Cicero’s 'Brexit-o-meter'.
UK will be broadly a sovereign country, with as much cooperation as we can get away with without being in the single market. The Brexit is still a fairly hard Brexit.
He expects no second referendum, nor a different answer if there was one. Most people just want Brexit delivered.
The Leave ascendancy may however be ebbing. A recent BMG poll for The Telegraph found 51% wished to stay in Europe, while 41% backed Leave. As well, a Survation poll for the Mail on Sunday found 50% wished a vote on the final terms, with 34% against it.
With less than 14 months remaining, the UK Cabinet needs to agree on its strategy. There are two camps in cabinet, Rowland observed, one looking for minimum cooperation and maximum freedom, and the other maximum cooperation and being tied to the EU direction. He expects a common position will be communicated by the PM in similar fashion to Florence.
Once the deal is done
In March 2019 there will only be the outline of a deal agreed, and the UK will be out of Europe, he said, but it won’t seem like that. With at least two years of transition to follow, the status quo will likely continue, budget payments will still be made. Only when the final relationship agreement is finalised will changes become apparent.
Some have put forward Canada’s free trade agreement with the EU as a basis for the UK’s future relationship with the bloc. That deal took nearly eight years to negotiate.
UK ‘remain’ cabinet ministers are encouraging Theresa May to look into Norway’s arrangement, which would be a more ambitious free trade deal than Canada’s. It would involve payments to the EU continuing, but the lack of UK payments on Brexit would bore a deep hole in the EU budget longer term.