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Dealing with the Brexit trilemma : How Johnson’s approach differed from TMay’s

October 18th, 2019

A guest slot from Timothy Hinton

I have consistently misunderstood the Brexit options open to the UK as existing on a continuum, from the softest Single Market + Customs Union extreme on one end to the hardest No Deal extreme on the other. The choices made by Boris Johnson, and the relative speed with which the UK and EU were able to reach agreement on a radically different deal, have made it clear that the main options have been much more discrete.

If we consider the December 2017 Joint Report we can see that Brexit is a classic example of an impossible trinity, or trilemma. There exist three options, of which a Brexit deal can consist of only two. The three options are: (1) to avoid regulatory divergence between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (thus supporting the all-Ireland economy and the Good Friday Agreement), (2) to avoid regulatory divergence between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (thus preserving the Union), (3) to create regulatory divergence between Great Britain and the EU (thus taking back control).

Remainers and the EU have been successful in ensuring that respecting the Good Friday Agreement must be one of the two options chosen. The UK would not choose No Deal. The EU would stand by Ireland. The fundamental choice for the UK has then been between preserving the Union and taking back control. One factor that helped to obscure the reality of this choice was the magical thinking from many Leavers that there was a technological solution that would allow all three options in the trilemma to be chosen, or that the UK could simply walk away from its commitment to the GFA without any serious repercussions (for example to its international reputation).

With Johnson’s deal we can see that reality has imposed itself and a different choice to May has been made. While May’s choice was for preserving the Union, Johnson’s has been for taking back control. Making the distinction in this way I can understand why the more extreme Leavers would be happier with Johnson’s deal, and how much opposition Remainers and the DUP lost by opposing May’s deal.

The alternative to May’s Deal was never going to be a softer Brexit, or one with stronger ties between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as it was the softer of the two available options in the Brexit Trilemma that put preserving the Union ahead of taking back control.

One argument that has been made to justify the opposition of Remainers to May’s deal was that it would have been wrong for Remainer MPs to effectively impose a deal on Leaver MPs that they did not consent to. If the ERG do vote with very few exceptions for Johnson’s deal that argument would suggest that Remainers should not stand in the way of its passage. However, perhaps there is still an argument for a second referendum. The public have not been involved in the choice between the three options of the Brexit trilemma.

There now exist two deals which represent the two combinations of the trilemma that respect the Good Friday Agreement. Perhaps we ought to put the choice between May’s Deal, and Johnson’s, to a public vote?

Timothy Hinton posts on PB as oblitussumme