Stephen Wall says the Irish border could thwart hard exitby Alex Dean / April 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Britain is on the verge of the most dramatic constitutional event in its post-war history. In less than a year we will leave Europe, having been enmeshed in its framework since 1973.
The exit process has so far served as a brutal reality check. Issues of the most pressing importance—Northern Ireland in particular—remain unresolved. To make matters worse, the ugly politics of the referendum campaign have failed to dissipate. Britain is engulfed in the fiercest of political rows with little sign of reconciliation. Most of all, there is uncertainty about what this almighty leap in dark means for Britain in the 21st century.
Few are so well qualified to interpret all this as Stephen Wall, one of Britain’s most senior former diplomats. “I first became a pro-European when de Gaulle vetoed British accession in 1963,” he told me recently in Prospect’s Westminster offices (Wall was just 16 at the time). He began his diplomatic career at the Foreign Office and eventually worked his way up to Ambassador to the EU between 1995 and 2000. He held a host of other senior diplomatic roles during a glittering career, including Ambassador to Portugal and Chair of the EU Secretariat for the Cabinet Office.
With the caveat that “prediction is a mug’s game,” we charted our way through the Brexit landscape. Wall was outspoken from the off.
A fundamental problem, he told me, is that the unprecedented nature of the process means the government is improvising. On the Irish border, he suggests that “I don’t think they had really thought about it.” This is now the hinge on which the whole Brexit process turns; a hard Brexit means a hard border. Yet the government has vowed to deliver the first and avoid the second.
“The government has made this unambiguous commitment about Northern Ireland which means that either they’ve got to come up with some clever telematic solution—which nobody I’ve talked to thinks is plausible—or we’ve got to stay in a customs union.”
The idea that technology could solve the border problem has been called “magical thinking” in Brussels—and what the EU says tends to stick.
But, Wall adds, “Theresa May said something interesting recently, that maybe we’d have to be in a customs union for longer… I can’t think of any reason why she would have said that unless at least the thought was in her mind.”
“All the precedents…