Category Archives: International

UK being bossed around by EU on “Hard Brexit”

Former Chancellor George Osborne returned to public view last week to warn that, although the people of the UK had voted for “Brexit”, they had not voted for “Hard Brexit”. As a matter of straightforward fact, he was completely correct.

However, what if “Hard Brexit” is the only type of “Brexit” on offer? I suspect that is the word from the grape vine of UK diplomatic channels, and is the reason the Prime Minister is creeping that way.

We need to be very clear. The invocation of “Article 50” merely determines the route by which the UK would leave the EU. It does not determine the future relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU; nor does it even clarify whether or not the UK may be able to retain membership of the European Economic Area (the “Single Market”) or the European Union Customs Union. Were it to become apparent – as it may already have through diplomatic and legal channels – that leaving the EU also automatically means leaving both the Single Market and the Customs Union, this would mean “Hard Brexit”. That is a straightforward matter of fact; there is nothing that can be done about it.

Upon leaving the EU by “Hard Brexit”, the UK would then have the option of seeking further negotiations to soften the blow. However, any sort of association would be subject to ratification by all 27 remaining members – in each case at least through one legislature, usually through two, and in some cases via referendum (noting that the last such attempt was rejected by the Dutch in a referendum this year). At every stage, each country will seek to extract an extra concession or two, and even then it only takes one to reject it – leaving the UK firmly “Hard Brexitted”.

All the discussion so far focuses on what type of “Brexit” the UK wants or should go for. More important, in fact, is what type of “Brexit” the rest of the EU wants. The EU is bossing the UK around, and that is why there is only one type of “Brexit” available – the “Very Hard” kind. The “Very Hard” kind which is not in the UK’s interests, and that no one actually voted for…

If State Aid rules were broken, is the State not responsible?

Away back in February, I explained why the Irish Government is quite happy to let a huge, wealthy corporation like Apple not pay any tax. The previous January I noted that this was not without penalty to the humble customer.

This August, the intervention came. Let us assume that the European Commission is right and State Aid rules were breached by Apple’s rather favourable tax arrangements in Ireland (even though I make no such assumption, personally).

Who established those tax arrangements? Was it Apple, or Ireland?

Quite obviously it was Ireland. And this is not a victimless crime. Who is to say that Apple would not have preferred the lower labour costs available in Northern Ireland, were it not for the fact that it could enjoy such favourable arrangements South of the border? In effect, Ireland applied tax arrangements which were tantamount to “cheating” within a Single Market in which other jurisdictions compete for business such as Apple’s. That is why State Aid rules exist.

So, er, why exactly is the effective fine being applied to Apple and not to Ireland?

“Proxima Centauri b” biggest story of 2016

2016 has been a dramatic year – one which may well be looked back upon as a serious society changer in a similar way to 1968.

There is no question at all, however, about what is the biggest story of the year.

Pale Red Dot

This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Source:

The discovery of Proxima Centauri b is potentially the most profound astronomical event since 20 July 1969, and perhaps the most profound discovery for four hundred years (since Galileo).

It was only within the last generation that the very existence of planets outside the Solar System was confirmed. With Kepler, thousands have been discovered, although still overwhelmingly planets with are larger than Neptune and close to their star (far closer than any planets in the Solar System are to the Sun, in most instances), and only around the 15% or so of stars which are relatively similar to the Sun. Although it was long considered likely that there were other planets out there, what was most exciting about this is that we can now reasonably infer that almost every star we look at in the night sky has a planetary system. That is exciting – and profound, because it raises the probability of life to very high, and of intelligent life to much higher than we had previously been able to assume.

Every now and then, of course, a planet has been proposed and subsequently confirmed which is within the “habitable zone” (sometimes known as the “Goldilocks zone” – not too cold, not too hot, but just right to support life). Often, further observation has made the crucial existence of an atmosphere to support life less likely. Nevertheless, the important thing is that it captures the public imagination (frankly then making continued funding for this vital research for humanity more politically and socially palatable).

In recent years and months, a much wider range of planets have been discovered, confirming that small planets (like ours) are in fact quite common, even though they were not initially easy to find. Gradually the data are moving to include planets as far away from their star as the Earth is from the Sun, and then further, to give us a much clearer idea of how typical or atypical the Solar System is. Increasingly the odds suggest it is fairly typical – and that is, in itself, very exciting because it cannot be bad for the prospects of finding life (and intelligent life).

Then came 2016. Proxima Centauri is much smaller than our Sun, but is also part of a three-star system, so in fact it was the type of Star initially ignored in the hunt. We now know, significantly, that even such a star can support a planet and, what is more, a planet in the “habitable zone” (that zone is much closer than in our Sun’s case).

The Sun would be visible to the naked eye in the night sky on a planet or moon up to around 80 light years away; although of course there are much larger stars visible to the naked eye on Earth which are much further away than that. However, that roughly 80-year radius seems reasonable because, unlike intergalactic distances and such like, we can easily comprehend it – it makes the average star visible to the naked eye and it means that light reaching us now left those stars within the average healthy/lucky human’s lifespan (for example, light from the sun reaching any alien who can see it with the naked eye left within my father’s lifetime).

Proxima Centauri is just over four light years away – milimetres, in cosmic terms. It is the very closest star to our Solar System; it has a planet around it; and that planet is within the habitable zone. That is stunning – and profound.

It is not profound because there may be intelligent life on that planet. There probably isn’t.

It is not profound because there may well be life of some sort on that planet. If it isn’t intelligent, that confirms life exists somewhere else – which is profound, but actually would confirm something most people (at least, most people who think about it) now assume to be the case anyway.

It is profound because all of us, when we are lucky enough to get a clear night (ideally away from the city lights), look up at the stars in wonder. There is now, for the first time, a reason to go to one of those stars; because we have found one which has a planet absolutely worth visiting. And it is profound because it is possible, within a human lifespan (i.e. when people now living are still alive), that humanity will see images taken directly by a human-made space probe from a habitable planet around another star. We may already know by then that there is life out there, or that probe may be sent to explore whether there is; we may already know by then that the planet could be inhabited, or that it is not but once may have been; we may indeed already know by then that alien civilisations exist, or that they do not within any relevant range of us. Regardless, the very notion of humans already alive seeing directly taken images from the surface of a planet in another system is something which will be looked back upon, just as Galileo is, for centuries.

Ultimately, we humans are not economic units. We are emotional explorers. It’s how we have come to be what we are. And it is how we will be what we come to be. This discovery, therefore, gives us just a hint – quite possibly long after religions, nation states, or even economies have ceased to exist – of what we will come to be. We are truly lucky to be alive to experience it.

How is UK to leave EU?

My former colleague Gerry Lynch recently posted this on Facebook:

The will of the people must be respected. Which will is that? The will that the UK can get its cake and eat it with the EU more than it already had, with all the benefits and none of the costs of membership? Or the will said the UK is a great country and can thrive entirely outside European structures and has no need of the single market? Or the will that said that immigration was too high and the undoubted costs of leaving the EU were worth getting the level of immigration under control? Or the will that said immigration was great and the UK should lead the world as a tariff free, regulation free, country with the minimum possible border controls? Or the will that just wanted to stick the finger to Cameron and Osborne (both of whom have been forgotten in an amazingly short space to time)?

Too right. 

So here is a straightforward challenge to those who want the UK to leave the EU – tell us how. And here is a straightforward platform – do it right here, on this blog!

Any comment on this blog post either directly here or on Facebook will be taken as an offer of a guest blog post, next Tuesday (and Tuesdays thereafter if there are more than one). Let’s hear it!

Meanwhile, here is how I would do it. Well, of course, I wouldn’t leave at all. But here is how I would attempt to respect the will of the people without collapsing the economy or causing constitutional chaos.

I would put an offer to the heads of government across the rest of the EU stating as follows:

  • from 1 July 2017, for six years, the UK will place a cap on the number of people allowed entry to the country from the Schengen Zone for the purposes of work, announcing that cap six months in advance each year;
  • also from that date, the UK will take over the full operation of its international aid budget (knocking around £20-£30 million off its contribution to the EU budget);
  • during that seven-year period, the UK will remain a member of the EU on the terms negotiated by David Cameron, but will agree to leave the room for discussions pertinent to the Single Currency or the Schengen Zone;
  • after four years (from June 2021), the UK will negotiate with the European Council the terms under which free movement within the Single Market will work into and out of the Schengen Zone, and on the basis of that negotiation the UK will then make a decision specifically on whether or not to remain within or leave the Single Market (determining its future relationship with the EU on the basis of that decision).

What is in this for the various sides?

For everyone (the European Council, the UK Government, Leave supporters and Remain supporters), the headache of how precisely the UK goes about leaving the EU is postponed for a reasonable duration while it is worked out.

For many Leave voters, the UK reclaims “control of its borders” – forever, if it so chooses (but on the understanding that maintaining such “control” into the next decade means restructuring the economy to leave the Single Market). This should appeal at least to some of those who voted on “sovereignty”, and to almost all those who voted on “immigration”. Those who don’t much like “international aid” will also see this restored to the UK and thus some money brought back to the UK (even if this is actually somewhat irrational).

For Remain voters, the debate is shifted to where it should be – the Single Market. Ultimately the future decision is not EU or no EU, but Single Market or no Single Market. This is a recognition of the reality that the UK does not get to set the terms alone of remaining within the Single Market.

For the European Council, there is at least a window of opportunity to re-define the EU somewhat, making the “core EU” (Single Currency and Schengen Zone) distinct from the “associate EU” (the Single Market without the Single Currency and Schengen Zone). Not only might it be possible to avoid any member state technically leaving under this new dispensation (the obvious risk being if the UK goes, so might the likes of Sweden), but it may even be possible to tempt countries such as Norway and Iceland in, since the “associate” membership option is not far from EEA, but with a common and clear framework.

For the UK Government, there is the chance to reflect that concerns raised in the referendum about immigration have been fully taken into account; but also that concerns raised concerning economic reconfiguration and the difficulties with the legal changes required to leave the EU have also been given time for resolution.

For Scotland and Northern Ireland, there is at least time here to determine exactly what they would do, should the UK opt to leave the Single Market; and, presumably, to make the case not to. For the Republic of Ireland, there is also a window of opportunity to consider exactly what its interests are with regard to free trade and movement with the UK, versus with the rest of the EU.

The UK Government’s external core argument would be that it is a little rich for other EU member states to lecture on how important absolute free movement is, when in fact only the UK (alongside Ireland and Sweden) implemented it upon the EU’s expansion in 2004. It would be precisely because the UK took in so many EU citizens from that date that it would be making the case for not having to do so now; as well as being on a separate land mass and outside the Schengen Zone. Its internal core argument would be that leaving the EU takes time and needs to be subject to further detailed consideration, but that the direction of travel is now established without a reasonable counter offer towards a looser EU.

Surely, of course, the European Council would reject such an offer? Well, maybe. But maybe not. You don’t know until you try. Actually my bet is the European Council would accept the offer – after all, there is no institution in the world more expert at can-kicking-down-the-road.

Impossible? Impractical? Not actually respecting the will of the people? Well then, your turn… right here, next Tuesday…

102 years on, we have learned nothing from WW1

The lights went out across Europe this day 102 years ago. A generation never saw them lit again.

The tragedy is not just the 17 million lives lost in that war and the 50 million lost in the one directly consequent to it. The tragedy is we have not learned.

I wish I could disagree with Tobias Stone in this article about how history is bound to repeat itself. Indeed, I have written similar myself, though not as effectively.

I am not by nature particularly a pessimist, but 102 years on the lights are about to go out again. Post-factual eras where people ignore those who actually know what they are talking about and turn to strong men always turn out the same way – in revolution and war. We can only hope it will not take as long this time for the light to return.

UK should negotiate new relationship, not “Brexit”

I am increasingly perturbed by the number of people coming up with all kinds of technical ways to try to stop “Brexit”, up to and including a weird and wonderful (and utterly ludicrous) plan by one academic for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in while England and Wales left.

I am perturbed because we should not waste time with technical (and actually ludicrous) ways to try to stay in the EU, when there are perfectly reasonable cases to be made for doing so. (And it is perfectly democratic to make them – just as it was for Leavers to continue to argue their case after a resounding referendum defeat in 1975.)

A month ago there was a referendum and, albeit by a narrow majority, the UK electorate backed the motion “the UK should leave the EU”.

That means those who want to leave the EU get first try, and the new Prime Minister has wisely accepted this. Some big beasts of the Leave campaign now occupy all the relevant “Brexit” ministries, giving them the chance to come up with a coherent plan whereby leaving the EU is better than remaining in it.

However, the fact is they wil almost certainly fail. After all, what were the main reasons for leaving the EU?

  • We now know there will not be £350 million a week extra for Health, or anything like it, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that Turkey will not be joining the EU, or anything close to it given what happened last week, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that, far from “being able to do our own trade deals”, the UK will in fact have no trade deals at all even in formal negotiation (far less complete) on the day it leaves the EU, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies either.

Of all the key arguments for leaving the EU, that leaves just one intact – immigration. Objectively, that key argument for leaving the EU may still apply, even if it is worth emphasising that it also means leaving the Single Market altogether (which wasn’t actually on the ballot paper).

So it is obvious what should happen now. The UK should start discussions with the EU, as a member state whose population wishes currently to leave, around immigration. The UK could indeed argue that it has a unique status – given additional favourable status for people coming from the Commonwealth; the generosity it showed to citizens of new member states immediately upon the 10-member expansion in 2004; and the fact that it is geographically isolated. But it could also argue more broadly that absolute free movement of the scale currently in place across the EU (actually, the EEA) does not work and is in fact leading to hostility to the whole Single Market project across the continent, not just in England and Wales.

The underlying point is obvious. If the EU refuses to heed the warning from the UK electorate on immigration, the UK will have to find its own way somehow but it probably will not be the last to go. On the other hand, if the EU is willing to listen (and every national election which takes place across the continent will only make it more willing to) and to rethink just how absolute “free movement” has to be, then all options including maintenance of the UK’s membership remain on the table. If, after all, the EU proved willing to meet the concerns of those who voted to leave it last month, why actually leave?

The case for leaving the EU is just as poor now as it was a month ago. However, that does not mean that many of the concerns of those voting to leave were not legitimate. If we really wish to remain in the EU from this inauspicious political position, we have to address those very real concerns, not just bleat about academic technicalities.

Brexit Op-Ed

Full text of an Op-Ed for the Belfast Newsletter.

The Newsletter has right led the way on demanding devolved institutions in Northern Ireland prepare themselves for a changed future in the light of last month’s referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

It is absolutely correct to say that this is no time for our Executive Ministers and public servants to be treating themselves to a two-month holiday. Having evidently failed, disgracefully, to come up with any contingency for a Leave victory, despite the fact one of the Executive parties was advocating one, sacrifices will have to be made so that the business of government can proceed smoothly from September.

Firstly, as the Newsletter has rightly suggested, Committees should be continuing to meet – even if by allowing deputation of members by party colleagues in some cases. These meetings should have the specific initial objective of assessing exactly what the exposure is of each Department to the European Union. Are there funds, information streams, knowledge exchanges which are endangered by leaving?

Once this work is done (and there is no reason it should not be by early August), the Executive should then assess which aspects of our relationship with the EU are essential, and which can be replaced. This will then determine the position the Executive takes in advocating for Northern Ireland when the UK/EU negotiations take place. How important is it to our young people’s futures that our further education institutions (and students) are treated as if they were in the EU; to our small businesses trading across the border that we remain within the Customs Union; to our exporters that we remain within the Single Market? What exactly do we need to do to maintain access to European Clinical Trials, pan-European medical research and interventions for rare conditions? What do we propose to do about the European Arrest Warrant, access to shared intelligence and hot pursuit protocols which will keep us safe from international crime and terrorism? Is there even a case for Northern Ireland-only work visas, EU customs access or reciprocal health care arrangements?

Having established what aspects of EU membership are vital to Northern Ireland’s future, we can then pursue our case. We may be able to make common cause with Scotland, or even Gibraltar or London, on many of these issues. We should almost certainly be arguing for a UK Constitutional Convention and an all-island Civic Forum to help this work and ensure compromise in key areas. The Executive Office in Brussels should long ago have been building bridges with other European regions in similar positions to add to pressure across the EU for a “Special Access Arrangement” for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and geographical location. We also need to consider implications for corporation tax, infrastructure investment and skills development – but this must be done as part of an overall strategy, not in isolation.

The issues, for households, businesses and service deliverers across Northern Ireland, are far too important to be ignored for two months. Contingency plans must be put in place now, and delivered upon immediately in September.

#Brexit and the rise of Russia

“Stay in the EU and there’ll be an EU army” was yet another Leave lie. But EU cooperation on defence is of course essential. Its eastern frontier is now directly challenged by a crazy dictator, launching cyberattacks on government website and taking chunks of neighbours’ territory.

The UK offered the best intelligence and the joint largest military response to this threat to our allies, to which the EU brought democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Not only is the UK now on course to split from the EU, creating practical difficulties to cooperation to counter this obvious threat, but it is also on course to fall apart itself – something Russia knows all about but will thoroughly enjoy for all kinds of reasons.

Giving prominence to crazy dictators is not a very wise move in the current, uncertain world. Of course, the UK may soon effectively have one of its own.

The people misspoke last month.

EU Op-Ed (News Letter)

Full version of my Op-Ed in Thursday’s Belfast Newsletter:

Many people are asking now what the vote to leave the EU means to them. Of course, the answer is always “It depends” – on what the UK’s new relationship with the EU is, on when it is resolved, and on what exposure households and organisations have to the EU.

One point needs clarification: the EU is an association of 28 member states. If one member state decides to withdraw, then all of its territory ceases to fall within the EU, and its citizens cease to be EU citizens. What precisely this means depends on the exact nature of the relationship subsequently negotiated, but we should be in no doubt that if the UK proceeds to leave the EU, the only way for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain within the EU is to leave the UK.

It should not be doubted either that the UK-wide vote will be taken as an instruction by the new Prime Minister to begin negotiations on withdrawal from the EU. It is anyone’s guess how these negotiations will be carried out, or what outcome they will arrive at. We are hearing much about ‘Article 50’, which may be invoked by the Prime Minister as the most obvious means of withdrawal. However, this gives the UK and the EU only two years to negotiate terms. Thus, such a move would instantly weaken the UK’s negotiating hand, as it would be out at the end of two years even if nothing had been agreed.

A disproportionate number of people in Northern Ireland will be exposed in some way to EU funding. In an extreme case, that the UK leaves the EU relatively quickly with no subsequent trade deal in place, this funding would simply disappear. This possibility has to be considered, but is unlikely.

Another possibility is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA (the so-called “Norway Model”), thus maintaining free movement, a contribution to EU budget (but also access to Structural Funds) and a requirement to implement some (but not all) EU Law. This would mean that some current funding (e.g. PEACE) would probably be secure, and that there would be some chance of maintaining access to specific other funding streams, albeit at a reduced level (e.g. for business R&D or infrastructure).

Unfortunately, the downgrade in the UK’s credit rating alone had the effect of requiring the UK now to pay more merely to service the interest on its debt than it pays into the EU budget. Notably, even in the EEA, there is no access to Rural Development Funds (such as CAP), which will now in effect have to be replaced from within Northern Ireland’s devolved budget.

It remains possible, though unlikely, that the UK will remain within the EU in the end. An incoming Prime Minister, faced with economic recession and constitutional chaos (and, thus, a tarnished legacy), may seek a new EU deal and put it back to consultation with the people. However, even this may mean some withholding of EU funds and continued economic uncertainty during negotiations.

There is opportunity is every risk, however, and now may be the time to engage in real reform of public services and in appropriate consolidation of provision within the voluntary/community sector.

UK not yet out of EU…

In my scenarios two days ago I noted that there is still a scenario – though very much the least of the four – where the UK remains within the EU. It is unlikely, but not as unlikely as some think, given that the whole process of extracting the UK from the EU is so complex and damaging. (To be clear, my “central forecast” would be the UK out of the EU and into some form of associate arrangement with the EEA by May 2019.)

To be clear how remaining in the EU is not going to happen: there is certainly not going to be a second in/out referendum; there is almost certainly not going to be a General Election won by a Remain party or coalition; and UK withdrawal cannot be blocked by Scotland. There is some “buyer’s remorse” among Leave voters but there are also Remain voters who are no particular fans of the EU. There was a referendum and Leave won, so it is the political position that the UK (all of it) will now proceed to leave the EU. End of.


The assumption now is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA Single Market – known as the “Norway Model”. This is of significant benefit to many of those who voted Leave on grounds of sovereignty, because it means EU Law no longer has primacy (although in practice much of it still has to be adopted), UK citizens are no longer European citizens, and the UK can do its own trade deals and agricultural subsidy programmes. Single Market Access is also essential to keeping Scotland in the Union and to any hopes of maintaining London’s status as a global financial centre. However, it is hopeless for those who voted Leave on the grounds of immigration or border control, because a founding principle of the EEA is free movement of labour; additionally, only EU members can veto new EU members (who automatically also join the EEA upon meeting its requirements), yet each new member adds to the EEA membership fee.

Currently, Leavers are trying to argue that they will be able to join the EEA Single Market while at the same time implementing border control. Such a deal simply is not possible.

Ironically, it could be that the only way the UK can stay in the Single Market while implementing some form of inward border control is by remaining in the EU – not least since other EU countries may be minded to trade some form of border control in return for not losing their second largest member (and thus risking complete break-up).

As a pesky Liberal, the whole notion appals me, but here is how such a negotiation could go.

The UK could argue exceptionality on the grounds that, firstly, it particularly has to manage immigration from the Commonwealth; secondly, it was one of only three countries that allowed fee movement immediately to the new ten member states in 2004; and thirdly, it consists almost entirely of an island.

Here is a thing: as it stands, not all UK citizens are actually entitled to workers’ rights across the EU. As the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have severe restrictions on those who may live and work there, they are outside the EU and people attaining UK citizenship only by association with them have their passports “endorsed”, marking them as not qualifying under free movement of labour.

The UK could argue that, given the above exceptionality and that, in any case, some of its own citizens have “endorsed” passports barring them from free movement, that it too should in effect be allowed to “endorse” passports from other EU member states where these were given out on grounds other than “native qualification”. Politically, an obvious example to use would be a Syrian refugee who would not qualify for a UK passport but did qualify for one in Germany due to its more liberal approach; the UK may wish to argue that it does not wish to recognise that passport as one of an “EU citizen”, since it would never have allocated one in similar circumstances.

On top of that, the UK may wish to argue that its generosity in 2004 in particular should now be countered by an agreement that it would not have to give free movement to citizens from any new EU member state (effectively all Albanian passports would be deemed “endorsed” by the UK, for example).

It could argue all of that as part of its negotiation to remain in the Single Market, but the chances of a sympathetic ear from other EU member states are absolutely zero. After all, two years after invoking Article 50, the UK is out, agreement or no agreement – so why on earth would other member states even begin such a negotiation, unless it were in return, say, for excluding financial services from the Single Market (as per Switzerland) and thus delivering a clear economic penalty to the UK?

However, what if the UK were to suggest that such an arrangement, giving it greater control of its border and calming fears about the immigration impact of EU expansion, would mean it could stay in the EU after all (albeit under an arrangement branded something like “Associate Membership”)? There would be something in that for other EU member states, whose native citizens would still have free movement and who would have thus limited the chances of the UK’s withdrawal leading to further departures. And there would be something in it for those who voted Leave on grounds of immigration – in fact they would have greater control of the border (as well as a veto of new members) inside the EU than outside.


I wouldn’t be putting the house on it, but in these crazy times such an outcome is not entirely inconceivable.