It will be interesting to compare the agriculture section of the Government’s Brexit White Paper, issued later today, with the version contained in the full draft from DexEU that we published earlier – the Canada Plus Plus Plus scheme, as it were, that Theresa May has rejected.
In relation to goods and regulation, DexEU proposed mutual recognition. On agriculture, the term is “outcome equivalence” – “when two parties agree to achieve the same outcome with flexibility as to the method by which that outcome is achieved”. DexEU says that it is used in existing free-trade agreements and cites Canada. There would be a regulatory co-operation mechanism to oversee the arrangement.
However, the draft also makes the point that “the UK is in a unique position, since it starts from a position of full regulatory alingnment on Day One after leaving the EU”: where Canada starts from a position of divergence and is aligning, the UK would start from a position of alignment and could, in due course, diverge. The DexEU plan would therefore work in a different way from some present WTO multilateral SPS agreements, because these “are achieved by the partner country aligning its rules to the EU.
“In contrast,” DexEU says plainly, “a UK FTA with the EU would need to allow for an initially harmonised regulatory system to diverge over time”. Which brings one to what is perhaps the heart of Danny Dyer’s “mad riddle”. If the Government is committed, as it is, to no hard border in Northern Ireland; if, however, the technology is not in place to deliver the maximum facilitation customs scheme outside the border by the date of the next election, and if there is to be no east-west border, then what’s the answer?
ConservativeHome is hearing that Ministers and others are mulling what to do if the EU rejects Theresa May’s new Brexit policy out of hand – Norway Minus Minus Minus, let us call it. If this happens, could the softest of east-west internal checks make DexEU’s Canada Plus Plus Plus an alternative runner?
These sources say that there have always been differing arrangements in some respects between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The province may be “as British and Finchley”, as Margaret Thatcher once said, but it’s never been governed exactly like it. It has been through Stormont, direct rule, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements. Furthermore, there have been and still are a measure of east-west checks and restrictions.
Suspected terrorists were sometimes barred from the UK mainland during the Troubles. Operation Gull, by which checks are carried out by immigration officers on passengers between Northern Ireland and that mainland, is at work now. On agricultural goods, there are already some safety checks. James Forsyth pointed out yesterday on Twitter that Graham Gudgin says that “a degree of regulatory alignment for food plus checks on lorries aboard the Irish Sea” would be acceptable to the DUP”.
Gudgin has written on this site in his present role as Policy Exchange’s Chief Economic Adviser, and is a veteran observer of the unionist scene. It may be worth remembering that the DUP eventually went along with December’s interim agreement between the Government and EU, despite its reservations about the UK-Ireland-Northern Ireland sections, including the backstop. “We ran out of time essentially,” Arlene Foster said. This is not the tone of a leader or a party closed to dialogue.
We have heard, and the Spectator has heard separately, that Ministers and others are beginning to mull what the Government should do if the EU rejects May’s new Brexit policy out of hand. Might the DUP sign to internal east-west non-tariff checks on agricultural products? After it, these would extend a principle that arguably is already in place. And agriculture already comes under the north-south bodies established under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
Any such arrangement would also have the effect of easing negotiations for trade deals between non-EU countries and the rest of the UK – since many such countries are likely to want access for their agri-food produce as part of any free trade agreement. In such circumstances, Northern Ireland would surely have to be compensated in some way for missing out.
In short, east-west checks on agriculture might not ultimately be unacceptable to the DUP, and certainly wouldn’t bring the temple of the constitution crashing down.