Not-So-Casual Thoughts on Brexit

So, I have BBC World News as part of my cable package, and so I’ve been able to follow Brexit a bit. Or, rather, I’ve heard a bit about it, because even after listening to specific attempts to explain what’s going on for some reason it’s rare that anyone ever really spells out what the issues really are here. With Theresa May running off to try to get an extension after giving a speech where she reiterated the EUish rhetoric that the MPs have said what they don’t want but not what they want, this is a good time for me to give my general impressions of what’s going on.

And let’s start with that speech, because it completely demonstrates just how badly May has failed at this. Determining what MPs wanted was, in fact, her main priority. It was essentially her job throughout the process. That she’s saying that she has no idea what MPs actually wanted at this late stage is incredibly, incredibly bad for her. She really should have known what they wanted by now or, failing that, known that their wants weren’t something that could be delivered. She went off to Brussels to get a deal, and came back with one that as soon as the details of it were released everyone was saying that it couldn’t pass. After it was defeated, she kept going back to get new deals and kept coming back with ones that it was obvious to everyone — except perhaps her — that it couldn’t pass. And if she was saying that she didn’t know what MPs wanted, she really needed to have a plan for figuring it out before she went off to plead for an extension. The rumour now — I just saw it on BBC World News — is that the extension deal she’s working out now is likely going to be contingent on her deal passing. This is the deal that had less support than a vote on leaving with No Deal, and so she’d be putting forward a deal that she should be aware that MPs don’t want. So, despite her rhetoric, it seems that she doesn’t know what MPs don’t want as well as not knowing what they want. Or she’s hoping that the deadline will get them to take her deal despite, again, more MPs saying that they’d rather No Deal than May’s Deal.

Okay, so what is at issue here? Well, I’m sure anyone even remotely paying attention to Brexit can immediately answer that question with “The Backstop”, but what does that, in fact, really mean? As best as I can understand it, the issue starts with the fact that everyone involved wants the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to remain open. As the two are currently part of the same economic union, that’s currently really easy to do. But after Brexit, Northern Ireland would be part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland would be part of the EU, and so they’d have different rules for a number of things, mostly around movement of people and goods between the areas. And that would suggest that some kind of border security would be needed to manage those different rules, which is what no one wants. So the current solution on the table — as best as I can understand it, so don’t quote me on this — is that for the time being Northern Ireland will follow EU rules, and the UK will provide a “backstop” where on entering the UK from Northern Ireland the UK rules would be applied. This is supposed to be in place for a set time until a better solution can be worked out. As far as I can tell, most of the relevant bodies are okay with this idea, even if it isn’t ideal.

Which leads us to the problem with May’s deal, including her latest deal. As it stands, again as best as I can tell, the backstop has to stay in place until the UK comes up with a solution that the EU finds acceptable, at which point the backstop would end and Northern Ireland would move back under UK rules. The EU, reasonably, wants this because they, I assume, don’t want the UK to come back in two months with a half-solution and say that it’s all fixed. On the other hand, the UK reasonably doesn’t want to have the EU veto a perfectly acceptable solution because it’s not the one they wanted, or because some members want to put the screws to the UK a bit more. This is why the Solicitor-General saying that the latest deal still allowed for the EU to veto removing the backstop was the death knell for the latest deal.

While I might be being naive, I have a thought on what seems like the best deal to make everyone merely grumble about the situation. The Republic of Ireland would use EU rules. Northern Ireland would use UK rules. No one would check at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland what rules the various things followed. The whole island would essentially be a “free zone”. The UK and the EU would have the option to create backstops of their own if they wanted to restrict people or things from entering the EU or UK proper, but since they already have to do checks for things coming from other countries that shouldn’t add that much more overhead. If there are things that are too problematic to pass directly through the border, then the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have to agree on those rules and how to enforce them.

The most obvious flaw in this plan is the risk of “smuggling”, where products are shipped to either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland and then snuck out into the UK or EU proper. The backstops help with this, but another solution would involve perhaps some extra “Country of Origin” paperwork or other agreements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Probably the worst issue is that this might encourage the complete reunification of the two nations — since they’d be closer to each other than to the other jurisdictions — but the cultural desire for the two of them to remain either independent — the Republic of Ireland — or in the UK — for Northern Ireland — would probably prevent that.

But even if this solution isn’t workable, the fact remains that politics are also playing a major role in this. Some MPs don’t want Brexit to happen at all. Some EU officials don’t want the UK to leave, or at least want to make it as difficult for them to do so as possible. Some MPs actually want to leave with No Deal. All of this is making a pretty complicated process worse.

Brexit is a bit of a mess, and is confusing itself. After months of loosely following it, this is the best I can do.

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