Leave voters need to learn one thing and learn it quickly. A “no deal” Brexit is not an option. Not only would it cut the UK off from all global trade, but it would restrict cancer treatments, stop extradition of criminals, and potentially even limit foreign travel. To suggest the UK enhances its negotiating position by suggesting it is an option is sheer unadulterated lunacy – for the simple reason that it isn’t an option.
Remain voters also need to learn something too, however. They are often just as bad at suggesting options which simply do not exist. One such, presented primarily by the left-wing press at the weekend, was that Northern Ireland could somehow remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market while also remaining in the UK all while the rest of the UK does not remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market. That is administratively, economically and politically impossible.
Let us just assess the technicalities quickly. If you leave the EU, you leave its Customs Union and its Single Market. It would be possible for the UK as a whole then to form a Customs Union with it (not the same as “remaining in” the Customs Union, as it would almost inevitably have exceptions); and it would be possible for the UK to participate in the Single Market – perhaps in a very limited bilateral way like Moldova, perhaps in a more formal free trade way like Switzerland, perhaps in a fairly full way like Norway and Iceland. The key phrase there is “participate in”; the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU, but non-EU states may participate.
From Northern Ireland’s point of view, it would be ludicrous – taking an objective position economically and administratively – to put in place practical barriers to trade with the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland relies on the rest of the UK for common regulations in areas such as Health, for shared intelligence, and (not least) for the vast majority of its current trade. So the notion that it would somehow erect a practical restriction to free movement (of anything – people, workers, goods, services, information) between it and the rest of the UK is simply not viable. No one is seriously suggesting it and be wary of reports that anyone is.
What Northern Ireland could do (assuming, ahem, its devolved institutions are operational in some form) is relocate customs spot checks away from the actual border (turning them from an administrative point of view into something more like excise) and at the same time maintain EU standards to a wider degree than the rest of the UK. Customs checks would take place at point of origin or destination (whichever is geographically in Northern Ireland) or at the ports (specifically for goods which do not have origin or destination in Northern Ireland). By maintaining common standards across a range of areas with the EU (and thus the Single Market), “Made in Northern Ireland” would come to mean “maintaining the highest standards both in the UK and the EU”. Then, by declaring Northern Ireland a “Special Enterprise Zone” maintaining its own rates of corporation tax and air passenger duty as well as “highest UK/EU standards”, Northern Ireland could participate in the Single Market on a preferential basis to the rest of the UK (all while having unhindered access to and from markets in the rest of the UK).
However, it is important, particularly here, to get the descriptions right. This is not shifting Northern Ireland out of the UK and it does not require shifting actual political borders in any way whatsoever. It requires some administrative differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which are much in line with those which already exist. We may reflect, regardless of our own constitutional preference, that the outcome would mean maintaining the Irish border free of physical infrastructure while making Northern Ireland the best place in the world to invest, at least for some industries, because it could access without hindrance the widest possible customer market across the whole of the UK and the EU.
So let us stop the fantasies on either side, and focus on the prize. Participation is the key word!