Ireland presents Theresa May with an impossible choiceby Jonathan Lis / May 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Often in life we allow ourselves to be consumed by the complexity of a problem while ignoring the basic simplicity which transcends it. A complex challenge offers us hope that we may, through sheer force or wit, discover a solution. A simple one disempowers us with stark options that we may take or leave, but not change.
Brexit is the mother of all problems and the Irish border is its insoluble core. It is insoluble because the UK government is currently making too many demands and offering too few concessions. It is resolutely failing to take into account the weakness of its position and the strength of its partners’ resolve.
Senior officials and political figures that I have spoken to are clearer than ever in their assessment. The choice now open to Theresa May is simple and crushing: the whole UK either participates in the full customs union and single market, or it erects a sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Bluntly: we accept full free movement of people from the EU, or we impose trade barriers inside the UK.
Here’s why. For historical, political and economic reasons, Dublin will not tolerate a hard—which means an in any way visible—border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. For Northern Ireland after Brexit, avoiding tariff and rules-of-origin checks will require a full customs union, and avoiding regulatory checks on agricultural and manufactured products will require a single market in goods. Anything else will necessitate an internal frontier.
It then follows that if the whole UK does not align on goods with Northern Ireland and Ireland, there will have to be a tariff and regulation wall in the Irish Sea.
But that is not enough. The EU will not allow the UK to compromise the integrity of the single market by participating for goods alone. It will be seen across the bloc as another form of cakeism. If the whole UK wishes to apply the free movement of goods to prevent an Irish Sea border, it will also have to apply the free movement of services, capital—and people.
If the UK refuses this choice, then it must self-immolate with no European Union deal at all—an outcome which removes us from every EU umbrella without any domestic replacement, and crashes the economy, grounds planes and halts nuclear material overnight. This is not blackmail. This is the consequence of following the rules.
“On a recent visit I saw that even a sign welcoming people to ‘Northern’ Ireland had been defaced”
The UK accepts the need for an open border on the island of Ireland, but none of its options allows for it. The “maximum facilitation” customs solution requires physical technological infrastructure which immediately renders it unacceptable to Ireland, and therefore the EU. The customs partnership involves a byzantine layer of bureaucracy which will take a decade to implement and still leave key EU questions unanswered. And the government refuses even to consider the single market, which is perhaps the most vital component of all.
The fundamental driver of the border problem is peace in Northern Ireland, but too many Brexiters either don’t know or don’t want to know. They traduce or dismiss the Good Friday Agreement and breezily accuse opponents of fabricating the predicament for political ends. Such an attitude adds arrogant insult to colonial injury.
Northern Ireland’s peace is fragile and delicately balanced. Infrastructure is seen as interfering with people’s rights to be Irish citizens. On a recent visit I saw that even a sign welcoming people to “Northern” Ireland had been defaced. Senior Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers warn that the most minimal of infrastructure, such as cameras, would require round-the-clock supervision. Deeply provocative, and expensive too—while the PSNI’s budget has been cut by £140m in the past four years.
The Irish government is not seeking to annex Northern Ireland or to divide the UK. The only people dividing the UK are its ministers privileging global trade deals and cuts to EU immigration over the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. They may do well to heed a recent poll suggesting that Northern Irish voters would choose Irish unification over hard Brexit.
The Irish government’s interest is an open border and the EU’s interest is maintaining the integrity of the single market. That also means not permitting the UK to cherry-pick it.
Contrary to some British ministers’ allegations, neither Dublin nor Brussels has any interest in holding the UK “hostage.” Each side has objectives. Unfortunately for the UK, the other side is more powerful.
On Sunday the prime minister promised to deliver an open Irish border, frictionless trade, and third-country trade deals. She can either have the first two or the third. You cannot promise something not in your gift with a purse of political capital you have already discarded. The EU demands solutions for the border at the next summit in seven weeks. The withdrawal treaty needs to be wrapped up four months after that. If Theresa May concedes the need for soft Brexit inside the single market and customs union, she will be removed by the Brexit hardliners. If she concedes the alternative need for a sea border, she will be removed by the DUP and unionist MPs across the House. That is an insoluble problem for her, but one entirely of her own making.
Brexit’s complexity is excruciating, but its simplicity is devastating. We want too many things that more powerful people tell us we can’t have. At its heart is a problem of competing interests and asymmetric power. For the first time in centuries, the United Kingdom finds itself with an inexorable deficit—and still hasn’t realised it. No matter. The moment for promises has passed. Brexit means choices, and it is time to make them.