Britain has yet to answer fundamental questions raised by its departure from the EU and may yet conclude its current vision of Brexit is unachievable, former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said.
In an interview with POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast, Bruton said Brexit was “one of the greatest seismic shifts in relationships in Northern Europe that has occurred in the last hundred years. It represents in a very real sense a profound divorce.”
He said any upside for Ireland, in terms of jobs and firms that relocate from the U.K., would be far outweighed by disadvantages such as additional customs controls, bureaucratic burdens on business and disruption to pan-Irish agricultural markets.
Bruton, also a former EU ambassador to the United States, said there was at least a moral argument that Britain should compensate Ireland and other EU members for costs imposed on them by Brexit. He said there was “considerable annoyance in Ireland that a decision that Britain is taking is going to impose these costs on us.”
“I think Britain may come to the realization that Brexit, as they sold it to themselves, isn’t feasible,” he said. “But Britain itself would have to come to that conclusion. Britain is not going to be told, Britain has to learn, by doing — or attempting to do — what they propose, that what they’ve been proposing isn’t workable.”
If that happened, he said, it would be up to Britain to conclude whether it should change tack to pursue a softer Brexit or abandon Brexit altogether.
Asked about the recent flurry of position papers from the U.K. government, Bruton said: “They’re not about substance, they’re about procedure. The substance is what level of tariff you’re going to charge, will Britain pursue a cheap food policy? Will Britain automatically accept standards laid down by the EU and rulings laid down by the European Court of Justice? Those are the substantial questions and those have not been addressed yet.”
Bruton said the onus was on London to explain how it could reconcile its vision of tariff-free trade between the EU and Britain with World Trade Organization rules, which state that any trade concessions offered to one trading partner have to be offered to all.
“Until Britain comes up with a way of explaining how their ideas on having access to the EU market can be reconciled with the most favored nation principles of the WTO, it’s very hard for us on the European side to do much work on this,” said Bruton, who was Irish prime minister from 1994 to 1997 and the EU’s envoy in Washington from 2004 to 2009.
Bruton said that even if the U.K. envisaged no controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, there would still have to be checks somewhere on goods coming into the European Union.
“Whether the hard border occurs at the border, or 10 or 15 or 50 miles either side of the border, you are still going to have to have a system to check whether goods entering the European Union in Ireland from the U.K. meet EU standards of safety, meet EU standards of rules of origin, and have had paid … all the relevant EU tariffs which in some cases are very high indeed,” he said, speaking from Ireland earlier this week.
He said Ireland’s financial sector would likely gain from companies moving from the U.K. as a result of Brexit but those gains would not be enough to offset large disruption to trade and agriculture.
“I think the benefits, if there are benefits from Brexit, will possibly be concentrated in a small number of urban areas whereas the losses, which will be much, much greater, will be spread throughout the whole country,” Bruton said.
On whether Britain should compensate Ireland and other EU members for the additional costs caused by Brexit, he said: “If you look at what happens if somebody in business pulls out of a contract and thereby imposes costs … there could at least be a moral responsibility on Britain.”
Bruton said Britain’s attitude to Brexit was intimately linked to deeper questions of identity, particularly for England.
“This issue of Brexit is all wrapped up with the English sense of who they are and their place in the world. And, in a way, Brexit is being used as a means of discovering a new identity. And that’s a psychological process rather than an economic one,” he said. “Britain has got to work out for itself who it wants to be.”
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