Brexit: humble pie?

Who knows what will be on the menu when Theresa May dines with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today? Until after they meet, there can be no certainty about the terms that have been placed on the table. Ireland have already said that they doubt enough progress has been made over the weekend to avoid them using their veto.

However, if the latest reports from Irish state broadcaster RTE are correct, Theresa May could well be eating humble pie. RTE say that the UK has already conceded to EU negotiators that there will be no divergence of the rules covering the EU single market and customs union on the island of Ireland post Brexit.

According to two well-placed sources who have spoken to RTE, the text that negotiators have been working on over the past week clearly states that the UK will agree that on either side of the border there would be no divergence on EU single market and customs union rules after Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement will be protected.

This is hardly likely to go down well with hardliners in Theresa May’s own Tory Party, let alone with the Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party MPs who prop up her minority government at Westminster and whose bottom line is that NI must be treated no differently to the rest of the UK in any Brexit negotiations.

On the face of it, it looks like that the British have completely backed down to the demands set out by the Irish government and EU last week that there be no change in the present arrangement of a free and open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Only yesterday former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair underlined this position when he insisted that the Good Friday Agreement is at risk because of Brexit. UK and Irish membership of the EU was central to the 1998 deal, he told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend, adding that free movement on the border had been key to reaching an agreement. The free movement of people, goods and an open border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was ‘part of that expression that the island of Ireland was together’, he said.

The White Princess is a historical drama about the Wars of the Roses, a series of English civil wars for control of the throne of England. It was made last year, after the UK voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the EU. In a recent episode, the Duchess of Burgundy invites Henry VII to be a guest at her court to meet a pretender with a rival claim to the English throne. Henry Tudor refuses, as his Queen says, ‘The people of England support you. Do not doubt that.’

Right on cue, a courtier coughs.

‘There are rumours, your Grace, of nobles in the southern counties planning to flee to Burgundy.’

The King’s mother immediately interjects ‘We shall close the ports’.

Another courtier enters the debate..

‘And stop all trade? All legitimate travel?  Because of a rumour? England would be up in arms.’

Henry Tudor’s response?

‘I agree.  It is too drastic. The world would think I acted out of fear.’

Wasn’t it Karl Marx who said, ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.’

I wonder if Theresa May and David Davies, her Brexit Minister, were watching The White Princess at the weekend?

The exchange above is fictional. But history tells us that in 1494, Henry Tudor embargoed trade with the Netherlands as retaliation for Margaret of Burgundy’s support of an imposter. But both countries quickly realised how financially disastrous this was for both countries. Two years later, Henry Tudor had to backtrack and restore free trade, which significantly increased England’s wealth.

This is what Theresa May and her band of gung-ho privateers simply do not get. Henry was remembered, not for his trade embargo, but for his restoration of free trade by the Magnus Intercursus – The Great Agreement, in 1496. Ten years later, in 1506, he negotiated a further treaty with the Netherlands where they were forced to enter into a trade agreement so favourable to England that it was dubbed the Malus Intercursus – The Evil Agreement.

Theresa May must be praying that the tables are not turned on her today. If the RTE reports are accurate – and they have just been confirmed by Belgian MEP Philippe Lambert, who said that the UK government had agreed to a ‘special situation for Ireland’ – her future as leader of the Conservative Party looks uncertain. She may yet go down in history as the Prime Minister who negotiated The Evil Agreement.

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