Boris Johnson’s statement that he would not impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event of no deal may be said with sincerity and for the best of reasons, but he is either proposing something completely reckless – which will be deeply and fundamentally damaging to the whole of the British economy – or else he does not understand the UK’s legal obligations under the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
That treaty was drawn up after the experience of the trade wars of the 1930s and the way in which they helped create the atmosphere that led on to war. So the treaty is designed to check any moves towards using trade as a crude instrument of foreign policy and to encourage its growth as a cement for peace.
For these reasons its first clause imposes a strict obligation on all signatories to offer ‘most favoured nation’ status to all other signatory states that are not separately bound by mutual trade agreements. So if we leave with no deal and refuse to impose tariffs or customs checks we will be under a legal obligation to offer the same terms to every other WTO member state.
A simplistic approach to free trade might make such an idea seem attractive. Tariffs and other barriers do, ultimately, leave us all worse off. Their removal inside the European Union is one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – benefit of membership. But their unilateral removal would be a tremendous mistake and would do nothing to spur a world of greater free trade generally.
Removing them for imports into Britain alone would be a catastrophe for our agriculture and manufacturing, because there would be no incentive or obligation on any other WTO state to offer us the same terms.
We could forget about any chances of signing significant new trade deals as there would be little or no reason why any country would feel they had anything to gain by opening their markets up to British food or goods when Britain’s markets are completely open to their produce.
The alternative, that Boris Johnson rules out, is to impose tariffs and checks. Again, our obligations would apply not just at the Irish border but on all cross-channel ferry traffic too.
The basic rule is clear: if we create a favoured status for one country we must offer it to all. Hence, with no deal, we must but up barriers to trade with all EU member states or end barriers for all global trade.
If we do chose to impose tariffs then we would hit the living standards of almost every family in the country, with significant price rises inevitable for even basic foodstuffs.
Inevitably our imposition of tariffs would be matched – for the very same reasons – by EU tariffs on our exports. And so we would simultaneously turn the UK into one of the least competitive manufacturing bases in the world trapped behind a tariff wall between us and what is currently our biggest market.
There would be more at stake than simple profit and loss. We could end up changing the very look and feel of much of the countryside, as an early casualty would be sheep farming which depends on European export markets to stay viable. Communities which have made their living off the hills for generations could be placed under intolerable pressure.
Across the economy, jobs would be lost, some overnight, some in weeks or months. To staunch the flow it is more than likely that we would have to go back to the EU and ask for a new treaty, doing so from a much weaker position. Lofty claims about a global Britain will not fill many paypackets and I would hope our country’s traditional pragmatism would make a quick return.
Unfortunately one is also driven to conclude that Boris Johnson does not understand the complexities of the political and security situation in Northern Ireland either. Last year, while still in the government, he circulated a note to ministerial colleagues in which he stated “it is wrong to see the task as maintaining ‘no border’”: but that is just what, in commercial and economic terms, the UK government has pledged itself to do, and for the best of reasons.
The people of Northern Ireland rightly expect to see their government and their prime minister put their safety and security first, and they may be justifiably alarmed to see the man who aspires to lead their country treat questions crucial to their future with such indifference.
A proper Conservative response to these difficulties is to trust the people and put the question of Brexit back to the public in a final say referendum, not to play with constitutional and economic fire in the way that Boris Johnson appears to be doing.