The chair of the Tories’ European Research Group has an increasingly odd way of demonstrating his complete loyalty to his party’s leader. Perhaps it’s just normal on his home planet, or perhaps the word loyalty has some strange connotations for him which are unknown to the rest of us. In any event, he seems rarely to open his mouth without spelling out exactly how he thinks Theresa May is getting it wrong.
This week, he has told us that he thinks that she has been wrong to rule out the possibility that the UK would simply keep the Irish border open unilaterally, as though making such a threat would in some way put pressure on the Irish and the EU to cave in to the UK’s demands. At one level, he’s right, of course – the UK could indeed simply decline to erect any border posts or other infrastructure and allow goods from the Republic to flow freely across the border. We could even do the same at the ports along the English Channel and allow goods to flow inwards freely from the EU. Indeed, if we take that approach in Ireland, we would probably be obliged, under WTO rules, to do the same for all other countries, since discrimination not based on formal trade deals isn’t allowed.
It simply doesn’t follow, though, that the EU side would be obliged to reciprocate; indeed, under the same WTO rules, they probably wouldn’t be allowed to do so unless they opened all their borders to all other countries. For the ideological free traders, all that might look like a very good thing indeed. It is a strange way of interpreting the demand to ‘take back control of our borders’, but then that was never very important to the devout Brexiteers anyway; it was just a slogan to persuade particular groups of people to vote for the exact opposite. In practice, however, the EU27 will never agree to simply abolish borders without regulatory compliance; to do so would open up their market to companies which ignored environmental, health and safety, and worker protection directives. That again, of course, is exactly what the ideologues want; one person’s environmental protection is another person’s ‘red tape’.
That, ultimately, is precisely the point. The ideologues want to break up the EU, want to end all regulations which place constraints on the rights of capital to exploit people and the planet, and want a situation in which ‘freedom’ is about their rights to exploit, not about our rights at all. ‘Taking back control’ was only ever about giving that control to one particular group in society.