SIGNING OUT In September 2019, a commuter reads a UK government sign in Glasgow’s Central Station, Scotland, telling the public to prepare for Brexit before October 31 of that year. Scotland voted to remain in the EU.
Brexit and the catastrophic failure of British governance
I have an old wooden coat hanger that belonged to my late father and can never bring myself to throw it out. The hanger is nothing special. But it bears an inscription, written in Gaelic characters: ‘An tSualainn tir a dhéanta’. My guess is it dates from the 1940s, a time when Irish enterprises were protected from competing imports by both tariff and non-tariff barriers.
In this case, the non-tariff barrier was the rule that any imported product must have the country of origin (An tSualainn, Sweden) identified, in the Irish language. No doubt there was import duty as well. The fact that this hanger made in Sweden ended up in Ireland tells you a lot about the uncompetitiveness of much native Irish manufacturing in that era.
Most of the duties on goods exchanged between Ireland and the UK were swept away by the Anglo Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965. And with the entry of Ireland into the European Common Market in 1972, tariffs were further dismantled.
Listening recently to the bellicose ranting of David Frost, the UK Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe since January 2020, it dawned on me that the British behave as if they had exited from the old Common Market that they, with the Danes and ourselves, joined in 1972, and not from the European Union that has existed since 1992. They do not appear to understand the difference between a customs union and an economic union.
The creation of the Single European Market went far beyond issues of tariffs. It established an integrated trade bloc within which almost all non-tariff barriers to the exchange of goods and services were also eliminated, with common policies put in place to regulate product standards, together with freedom of movement for capital, labour, enterprises and services.
Preparing for the Single Market Act of 1992, the European Commission carried out extensive research on its potential benefits. As part of that project, I was asked to examine impacts on the more vulnerable member states of that time: Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece. There was a fear that these states would be more adversely affected by market integration since Germany, France, Italy and the UK, would now be formidable competitors within their own borders as well as beyond.
One of the main reasons behind the massive expansion of Structural Fund programmes from 1989 was to strengthen the so called ‘lagging’ economies and to win their approval of the Single Market. My study carried out a combined evaluation of the Single Market and increased Structural Funds.
It pleased me when the results showed up Ireland in a very good light. Unexpectedly, we were likely to benefit from market integration on its own, mainly because our multi-national enterprises produced goods that gained access to newly opened markets across the whole EU.
Key examples were public-health procurement, computers and software. Think Allergan, Baxter Healthcare, Hollister, Portwest. For Ireland, the Structural Funds were a very welcome bonus and sparked off ‘Celtic Tiger’ growth in the 1990s. Greece, with very limited manufacturing, was not so lucky, a problem compounded by poor use of their Structural Funds.
The European Commission’s comprehensive research programme in the run up to 1992 and afterwards was in stark contrast to the sloppy and arrogant way that the British negotiated their way out of the EU between 2016 and 2020. This must have infuriated the Scottish Government (Scotland, together with Northern Ireland voted to remain), since a crucial factor in the defeat of the 2014 Independence referendum was London’s threat to veto the accession of an independent Scotland to the EU!
So the UK departed and the consequences are now emerging. In a bizarre way, Covid may have provided the UK government with fig-leaf cover for the negative impacts of Brexit. Covid-19 resulted in more than 140,000 deaths in the UK. The fiction is maintained that the current travails of the UK economy are a consequence of Covid, and not Brexit. The rest of the world knows that both outcomes arose through catastrophic failures of British governance.
Relations between the Commission and the UK have deteriorated as Mr Frost accuses the Commission of behaving ‘without regard to the huge political, economic and identity sensitivities’ in Northern Ireland. Frost’s selective concern for such ‘sensitivities’ late in the day are not convincing, but this admission takes ones breath away:
“Our collaborative instincts from 45 years of membership meant that we were too slow to adopt a robust enough negotiating position. It is very clear that the EU did not make the same mistake, and it was explicitly to reset this psychology on our side too that we withdrew UK diplomats from most EU meetings from August 2019.”
Of course, the real problem for Frost – as stated in the recent Policy Exchange study of the Northern Ireland Protocol – is that commitments exacted by the European Commission from the UK, particularly on the Irish border, were ‘a diplomatic triumph for Ireland and the Commission’ but that ‘failing to secure adequate reciprocal concessions was a staggering failure for the UK’.
Our Department of Foreign Affairs must be quietly proud of this verdict.
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.