Critical week for Brexit as negotiations reach deadlock - here’s what we know

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 14, 2018
Sources have warned that the Brexit negotiations have hit a “real problem” as the EU seeks reassurance over a hard border in Ireland. MPs have previously warned that technology will not be a silver bullet.

Brexit UK EU
Brexit negotiations have hit a “real problem”, according to reports, as the EU continues to seek reassurances that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, involving physical checks, which some argue could destabilise the Peace Process.

It was hoped that negotiations may progress ahead of a critical EU Leaders Summit on Wednesday this week.

The Irish border continues to be a core sticking point. Some have argued that technology and a streamlined customs arrangement could go a long way to reducing friction at the border. However, MPs recently said that any sort of technology at the border - even the use of smart cameras - is still a form of infrastructure.

This view was supported by evidence given to the Brexit Select Committee, which heard that checkpoints and cameras on a future Irish border would be a potential target and recruitment tool for dissident terrorist groups in Northern Ireland.

Rumours began to emerge late on Sunday afternoon that a deal had been reached between negotiators in the UK and the EU, as the UK’s Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, made an unscheduled visit to Brussels.

However, talks broke down after the EU insisted on a second backstop arrangement for the Irish border - one involving just Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister has insisted any backstop arrangement should apply to the UK as a whole, in order to avoid creating a new border in the Irish Sea.

Yvette Cooper, Labour MP, recently said:

Let me be clear: I think we could do a great deal more with new technology at our borders. In the interests of trade, we should be improving the technology, and the use of technology, at our borders and at borders throughout Europe and the world. However, there is still a limit to how far we can go. First, it will take a long time and a lot of investment to roll out many elements of the technology.

Secondly, in the case of the congestion charge, the cameras identify only the cars, not what was in them, so cameras do not solve all the problems involving checks. Thirdly, we would have to rely on the willingness of France, Belgium, Ireland and other countries to provide the same level of investment in the technology at the same pace.

Crucially, the technology approach relies on cameras. As I said to the Prime Minister before Christmas, cameras are infrastructure. If we add a whole load of cameras to the Northern Ireland border, we will still be creating the infrastructure and—crucially—the targets that the police fear will become a focus for dissident groups who want to disrupt the peace process.

In addition, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up Theresa May’s Conservative government in the House of Commons, has vowed to oppose any new checks on goods passing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU has also effectively rejected the Prime Minister’s Chequers Plan and Labour is likely to oppose any deal brought forward in the House of Commons, leaving the government in a very difficult position.

Other challenges

Over recent months, we at diginomica/government have been covering the ongoing challenges facing the British government ahead of its intended exit from the European Union.

For example, data flows between the UK and the EU has been highlighted as a critical issue by politicians and experts on both sides of the Channel, with MPs recently stating that securing a data deal is “mission critical”. In all likelihood a data deal isn’t too contentious between the UK and the EU. However, Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator did recently say that the UK is unlikely to have a seat at the table when it comes to future data protection issues.

The Prime Minister has said that she would like to reach an agreement that went beyond data adequacy and suggested that the UK was aiming for a future role for the Information Commissioner’s Office within the EU’s data decision making. However, Barnier countered this with a speech calling on the UK to respect the EU’s autonomy.

Government departments in the UK have also highlighted the technology challenges that they’re facing ahead of Brexit, with some being forced to cancel a number of projects in order to make way for the work involved.

For example, HMRC has reduced its transformation portfolio by 139 projects and has also said that it is exploring “single window technology” to support customs after Brexit, which could cost “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

Equally, Defra, one of the departments that will be hit hardest by Brexit, as so many of its systems are intertwined with the EU’s, has said that it will have to fall back on manual systems to support the transition.

MPs on the influential Public Accounts Committee recently aid:

Our committee has repeatedly raised concerns about Government’s preparedness for life outside the EU. The clock is ticking and there is still no clarity about what Brexit will mean in practice.

Against this backdrop, Government departments must deliver fit-for-purpose systems and ways of working, in tandem with managing what in some cases is already a complex and ambitious programme of work.

As our new report again makes clear, departments are under extreme pressure. If Parliament is to hold them to account then it is vital that Government is as transparent as possible on the progress being made.

Further to this, influential think-tank Institute for Government recently issued a stark warning that even if the government manages to secure a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement before March 2019, and then manages to secure a deal on the future UK-EU relationship by December 2020 at the end of the transition period, the Prime Minister must accept that not all of the required systems will be implemented in time.

It said that the British government faces a choice between pushing for an extended timetable to get better prepared, or face disruption and a messy Brexit. The report states:

In addition to continued preparations for no deal, the Government is expecting to use the transition period to prepare for the future relationship. But the negotiations, determining exactly what that new relationship will be and what must change as a result, will be running simultaneously. The Government will be preparing for an unknown outcome, with details yet to be agreed and signi cant uncertainty remaining.

Details matter for these preparations. Whether or not the UK retains access to certain EU systems, for instance, could be agreed very late in the day. But exactly what is agreed will have major consequences for the teams in government tasked with responding. It is simply not possible to fully implement an agreement that, for most if not all of the transition period, will not be agreed.

My take

Lots of challenges remain, with not much clarity one what the future relationship yet looks like. As the Institute for Government notes, it’s hard to prepare, especially given the limited timeframe, if you don’t know exactly what you’re preparing for.

Image credit - Image sourced via Pixabay

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