Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Letter from … Dublin

Only the single market and customs union can deliver the type of border that Ireland and Northern Ireland needs, writes Irish Labour leader Brendan Howlin

Real progress was made at the December European Union council meeting, and talks on Brexit have now moved on to the second phase.

The commitment in the agreed text before Christmas that the British government will maintain full alignment with internal market rules on the island of Ireland in the absence of a satisfactory United Kingdom-EU agreement is a strong backstop. There was cross-party political support in Ireland for this approach.

Now we will need to determine the detail of how a two-year transition period will operate, and work will progress on the type of future relationship on trade and other policy areas of shared concern – from aviation to medicines.

The Irish Labour party wants the close relationship with the UK to be retained, for trade and transport between our countries to remain seamless, and for the hard won peace in Northern Ireland to be protected and sustained.

It is my view that only the UK staying in the single market and customs union can deliver the type of border and future trade arrangements that Ireland and Northern Ireland needs. Unfortunately the approach adopted by the Conservative government of Theresa May has specifically ruled out these options. I have also taken this argument to the last two British Labour party conferences and continue to raise Ireland’s concerns with key shadow spokespeople on the repercussions of the path taken thus far.

The choice has often been presented as between a European Economic Area arrangement like Norway has, or a free trade deal like that recently agreed with Canada. The UK will shortly need to make a decision on the type of access it wants to the single market, and decide its final position on freedom of movement and the European court of justice. It will be unable to cherry pick. Unfortunately there has still not been a reckoning in the UK over their continued desire to have all the benefits of EU membership without any of the obligations. I believe the red lines drawn by the Conservative government will have to be revisited.

In recent weeks the guidelines for the second phase of Brexit negotiations have been circulated to member states. According to reports, EU members have sought many changes. For example it has been reported Poland is seeking the continued right of EU citizens to work in the UK up to the end of a transition period, and the right to permanently remain after that.

It is likely the UK will also have to comply with EU trade policy up to 2021, and will not be able to strike its own deals during the transition.

The UK will lose access to EU trade agreements with 50 countries once it leaves in March 2019, unless as is likely, the EU decides to authorise third party access for the UK. There will be a cost for this. The UK would have to follow all rules and regulations, with no voice in deciding their content, alongside financial payments.

I am deeply concerned that once the British media and public realise the impact of these conditions it will spark fierce resistance but the alternative for the UK would be worse.


Brendan Howlin is leader of the Irish Labour party. He tweets at @BrendanHowlin


Source: Irish Labour

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Brendan Howlin


  • It’s good to read a principled policy on Brexit from Labour.

    No opportunism dressed up as triangulation from Brendan. And no fantasy politics about an imminent workers’ revolution.

    It’s little surprise therefore that, as long as the (out-of-date) opportunism and fantasies persist, Labour UK risks losing millions of younger voters not just at one General Election but at the next dozen.

  • Really – the gentleman’s opening ‘statement’? Surely Mrs May’s Mansion House speech offering a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, coupled with managed retention of existing principles, with the EU achieves exactly the same result? (Obviously were the UK to import US chlorinated chicken that would be subject to customs checks.) And of course bi-lateral agreement over the movement of our respective nations citizens would still remain in place.

    What is surely obvious to all but the blinkered, and this was so apparent watching Monsieur Barnier read from his prepared statement yesterday, is that the EU – or is it the Commission and elements of the European Parliament – are not prepared to negotiate, preferring to stick to rigid hide-bound essentially protectionist principles. The world is moving on.

    What is also blindingly obvious is the biased nightly presentation on the BBC. They – their political and economic correspondences – focus on divisions within the Tory party. But a presentation of the key issues facing Europe – mass economic migration from both within the EU and external, austerity, etc – and their impact on ‘popularism’ – a derisory ‘handle’ – on National forthcoming elections in Italy, the failure of Germany to form an elective governing coalition after 5 months – and earlier in Holland – and moves to the ‘right’ in Austria and the Visegrad ‘bloc’ doesn’t get airtime.

    Additionally, and unfortunately a perception of political debate here, why does commentators never reply to others observations and concerns?

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