By John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and First EU Ambassador to the United States
The beef sector will be worst hit, with a 350kg Irish beef carcass, worth 1295 euros, facing a 780 euro tariff on the UK market, if the UK applies WTO terms.
If, instead, the UK adopts a zero tariff approach, Irish beef would face unlimited Brazilian competition.
The emergency support measures, that the EU might introduce to deal with a No Deal crisis, would buy time for the sheep, pig and dairy sectors. This would allow them to develop alternatives to the UK market.
But alternative markets for Irish beef, at anything near the returns to be found on the British market, do not exist.
A No Deal has become increasingly likely because Mrs May has decided that her priority is to avoid a split in the Conservative Party. She has calculated that, if she tried to get her Deal through with Labour support, in return for modifications that would satisfy Labour, such as staying the Customs Union or softening her stance on EU immigration, her Party would break up. She would lose 50 or 100 MPs, and would cease to be Prime Minister.
Should, or could, the EU make concessions that would help out Mrs May?
Even if the EU side wanted to make concessions to the UK on the terms of its Withdrawal, it has no way of knowing if Mrs May would have the political authority to get any such modified deal through the House of Commons.
When one contrasts what leading Brexiteers, like David Davis, were saying a few years ago about what might be acceptable, with what they are insisting on now, it appears that nothing will satisfy them, and that every concession will be met by a new demand. It is catharsis, rather than compromise, they are after.
This is the point that needs to be addressed by those in the Irish media who are already laying the ground work for blaming “brinkmanship “ by the EU, and particularly by Ireland, if the UK crashes out of the EU on 29 March.
What guarantee can these critics offer that any conceivable “alternative” to the backstop would pass in the House of Commons?
These critics, and the UK government itself, have so far been shy in coming forward with practical ideas that would get a majority in Westminster, and also respect the integrity of the EU market.
One person who has come forward with ideas to break the deadlock is the UCD economist, Karl Whelan.
He says that one of the reasons advanced by the DUP for rejecting the backstop, namely that the backstop would place a barrier in the way of Northern Irish exports the Britain, is without foundation.
He says that under the backstop, exports originating in Northern Ireland would go through a Green channel at Belfast port with no checks or controls. Only goods originating in the Republic of Ireland , or further afield, would have to go through a red channel where there might be checks.
And, at the same time, NI exporters would have free access to the EU across the open land border in Ireland… They would have the best of both worlds.
Karl Whelan goes on to suggest that, to get the Withdrawal Deal across the line in the House of Commons, the EU side might consider two extra concessions.
The first is an option that, at some future point after the end of the transition period, Britain could leave the joint Customs Union with the EU, on condition that Northern Ireland remained in the Customs Union and aligned with EU goods regulations. This would deal with the Brexiteer fear that the EU is trying to “trap” Britain in the Customs Union, which is not the case.
The second part of his proposal is that voters in Northern Ireland try out the backstop for a few years, but that, after (say) five or more years, they could have a referendum, in which Northern voters could decide to opt out of the backstop.
He thinks they would opt to stay in it because by then they would , over the five years , have experienced the “best of both worlds” that the backstop gives the Northern Irish economy.
There are two problems with this idea. The suggested referendum could further deepen the Orange/Green split, and the very possibility of a referendum would introduce a new element of uncertainty for business. Referendums are inherently risky and influenced by extraneous issues. But the delay would allow time for the supposed technological fixes for a hard border to be road tested.
That said, his proposal would be far less divisive than an outright border poll, which could flow from a “No Deal” Brexit.
Opinion polls in NI suggest that a majority there would opt to stay in the UK if the UK were to remain in the EU, opinion would be equally split under the backstop, but would spring dramatically against staying in the UK if the there was a No Deal Brexit. In those circumstances a border poll would be hard to resist. Brexiteer “Unionists” in Britain are foolishly playing with fire.
Another idea for breaking the deadlock has come from the German Ifo Institute, in a paper published only last month.
This proposal would involve dumping the entire EU negotiating approach so far, and instead offering the UK membership of a newly constituted European Customs Association, through which the UK would have influence on EU trade policy and vice versa. It suggests that Turkey might also be invited to join this European Customs Association. The Customs Association idea might mitigate the “vassal state” objection to the UK joining the EU Customs Union as a simple rule taker.
But I would question the wisdom, and perhaps the motivation, of bringing forward such a proposal at this impossibly late stage, as a possible solution to the present crisis.
It might have been helpful, if it had been published when Theresa May wrote her original Article 50 letter in 2017, but it has little value, as a way of averting a No Deal crash out on 29 March.
If the UK accepts the Withdrawal Treaty, or if it decides to withdraw its Article 50 letter, the Ifo proposal might be considered then. But to have any traction, it is an idea that would have to come from the UK side.
Both the Whelan and Ifo proposals are designed to help the UK clarify what it wants.
The problem is that UK opinion on Brexit has become so polarised, and so tied up with questions of identity, and political party discipline has been so damaged, that it is hard to see the House of Commons assembling a political will to deliver anything, except slipping into a chaotic No Deal. I hope I will be proven wrong.
Compliments of John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and First EU Ambassador to the United States