The Brexit negotiations have reached crunch point.
The EU says there must be sufficient progress on three key issues – citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland and money – before we can move on to discuss our future relationship on trade, services and lots of other things.
I know there are those who say “why can’t we just get on with it all?” but the truth is it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
As we leave the European Union, it’s not easy to unpick 44 years of shared ways of doing things, especially when there are some benefits we want to retain like keeping trade flowing with our 27 neighbours without tariffs, paperwork or delays. And there are also some pretty fundamental choices we face as a country about what kind of future relationship we want to have with the EU.
Take the example of Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Our two countries have a long, shared history that we can see reflected around us in Leeds.
The legacy of those who crossed the Irish sea and came to our city to escape the years of famine in the 19th century, set up home on the Bank and worked to construct the buildings and railways that we still use today. Those who came to work in the munitions factories during World War II, helped build the UK’s motorways and care for us in the NHS. A history that still echoes in the Irish Centre in my constituency, built in the 1960s as a place where the community could relax and celebrate its heritage.
The troubles in the 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland were a terrible time, and that is why the Good Friday Agreement was so significant. As we mark its 20th anniversary this year, it is a reminder of what political courage, leadership and a willingness to compromise can achieve. As a result of it, the border posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic disappeared. Today people and goods criss-cross that border, barely pausing to notice that they have moved from one EU country to another.
The rights of citizens must be protected as we leave the EU and because the common travel area between our two countries predated our membership of the European Union, people will continue to be free to cross the border and be entitled to use public services in each other’s country. But when it comes to trade and goods, it is not so straightforward.
The Government says there will be no hard border in Northern Ireland – I want that and so does everyone else – but at the same time it is planning to leave the EU customs union and the single market. It claims that a hard border can be avoided by using highly streamlined customs arrangements and technology, but these are unproven and there is a real risk that we will end up with a border once again that will be a target for those dissidents who have never accepted the peace process.
Some kind of arrangement must be found to avoid this and I think that the UK remaining part of the customs union would be a good place to start. If we are going to ensure that Brexit doesn’t undermine the peace process, then we are going to have to make a choice. Pretending that we don’t or that we can get everything we want, isn’t going to help anyone. We need above all to be honest with each other as we try and progress these complex negotiations, maintain everything that has been achieved in Northern Ireland and get the best deal for the United Kingdom.
Hilary Benn is a Leeds Central MP and chair of the Brexit Select Committee