“It won’t cut mustard’

It is an expression I haven’t heard for decades while living abroad, but suddenly it is everywhere in the newspapers, referring to the British proposals for border controls in Ireland, after the UK finally leaves the EU in March 2020. It means, in plain language, it simply won’t work. But Irish border is not the only problem for the UK if she leaves both the single market and the customs union.

Theresa May has to decide whether she is going to listen to the growing chorus in the UK urging her to drop her red line on remaining in the customs union. The peers voted 348 in favour and 225 against in the House of Lords, on a motion demanding the government explore the option of staying in the customs union after 2020; a clear defeat for May’s Brexiteers by 123 votes. Now we have the ‘Withdrawal Bill’ to be debated in the House of Commons soon. How will the Commons vote? There will be rebels on both sides. The ultimate deal on Brexit is due to be finalised by 31st  October. However, if the UK leaves in March 2019, and the Irish border problem is not solved, then the UK may have to stay inside the customs union until agreement is reached, which would prevent it from striking new agreements elsewhere. The only other option is for the UK to walk away, and that has its own list of problems.

If a cordial agreement is reached, then the UK will enter a transitional period whereby it continues to obey EU rules, but is free to begin negotiations for future trade deals with other countries. However, there are problems here, as by leaving it will lose 37 trade agreements with 67 countries. Leaving the customs union will result not just in these losses, but also in the loss of EU trade itself. The Japanese ambassador to the UK, for example, tells us that he doesn’t think that a single market can be substituted by something better. Nissan and Toyota have large factories in the UK and sell mainly in Europe. The ambassador further tells us that Japanese firms will want to continue in the single market.

On the other hand, the Brexiteers continue to hit the media headlines. Nigel Farage is quoted as saying recently, “The prime minister said the UK would no longer be sending ‘vast amounts of money’ to Brussels, so there would inevitably be more cash available for spending priorities, including the National Health Service. Boris Johnson told the media, “Fantastic news about NHS funding”, and continued claiming “The Leave campaign bus claim that Britain will save £350m a week after Brexit should have been higher.

What is clear is that some British politicians and business people just don’t want EU regulations and any EU influence or control over their legal system or on social issues. They don’t want to compromise UK interests with those of other members; they want to follow only their own national interests as they perceive it. The European Community is built on compromise, with the fundamental underlying principle that no one particular national interest should dominate. This is why many think the UK should leave, no matter how inconvenient this is for itself and others. But this won’t be easy, as issues such as the Irish border will become a huge headache for London, which could have clamorous consequences for both London and Dublin, and hence the EU itself, as the border in Ireland will be an EU one.