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The Guardian view on Brexit and trade: an expensive geography lesson | Editorial

It is possible that Boris Johnson meant it when he said last year that Brexit would not involve checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but only if he did not understand the deal he had signed. His position made sense as dishonesty or ignorance. It was never true.

As Brexit talks continue in London this week, it turns out the government has submitted to the EU its application to put border control posts at Irish Sea ports. That is a necessary act of compliance with the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.

Since Brussels demands that the single market boundary be policed, and the UK made a commitment not to police it on the island of Ireland, a sea border was inevitable. That did not stop Mr Johnson pretending otherwise. On Wednesday a leaked cabinet letter revealed that the border risks being dysfunctional even after the prime minister’s scheme is enacted. The root of these problems is the failure to grasp the importance of the single market to the European project and a refusal to acknowledge the cost of Britain’s departure from it.

Eurosceptic arguments asserted the primacy of markets elsewhere in the world, in search of which Britain needed release from burdensome Brussels rules. The fact that more than 40% of UK exports go to the EU was dismissed as a relic of membership. The geographical proximity of those markets was belittled as an obsolete 20th-century metric.

But proximity matters to the EU, which sees in Brexit the prospect of commercial rivals trading into the single market from a low-cost entrepôt on their doorstep. Brussels wants to write guarantees against that scenario into a trade deal. UK negotiators resent conditions that they say are more onerous than those applied to Canada, for example. But Canada is thousands of miles further away.

Setting aside the question of how reasonable the two sides are being (each could yield a little), the essential problem is that distance matters to trade, and a Brexit model that was conceived in denial of that fact puts the UK at a disadvantage in the negotiations. Fantasy still stalks UK trade policy, as evidenced in Downing Street’s nomination of Liam Fox as a candidate to be director general of the World Trade Organization. Dr Fox’s cabinet record of resignation in disgrace, then rehabilitation through ineffectual jet-setting, will not be taken seriously in the competition.

Mr Johnson defers encounters with reality, but cannot avoid them indefinitely. He will compromise over Brexit, just as he did last year. The only question is whether it happens before or after transitional arrangements end in December. The terms of a deal with Brussels are not so different either side of the deadline, but the cost is higher if it is missed. In either case, Brexit is proving to be a slow and expensive way to teach the prime minister about geography.

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