How hard would the border become in the event that Brexit talks collapsed?by Katy Hayward / November 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
It is no coincidence that, after another run of dramatic headlines about the Irish border, there is a growing sense that we are tipping towards a “no deal” Brexit.
The Irish border remains the stubborn obstacle to progress in the exit negotiations. The UK’s integration with the European Union has formed a much-needed context for the softening of Northern Ireland’s relationship with Ireland—with direct benefits for the peace process. Extracting Northern Ireland from this context with none of the legal certainties and soft landing provided for in the draft Withdrawal Agreement is a grim prospect.
People in the Irish border region and Northern Ireland often use the term “collateral damage” to describe their position. But what would a “no deal” Brexit really mean for the Irish border? Would it be chaos, or would things trundle along much as they are? Complicated as it is, this is one of the most important questions as we near the Brexit crunch.
Let’s get technical
Since mid-September 2018, the British government has released dozens of technical notices on preparation for a no deal. The majority of them have a few paragraphs—usually towards the end—that address Northern Ireland.
In languagequite different to thetechnical jargon of the documents, these paragraphs carefully reiterate the government’s commitment to certain principles: it upholds the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement of 1998, it wants to protect North-South co-operation on the island of Ireland, and it seeks to take “full account of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
There is no small irony in the fact that it is precisely the effort to meet these principles that has resulted in the prospect of a “no deal” scenario. The “backstop” in the draft Withdrawal Agreement is meant to guarantee there will be no hard border. The backstop debate centres on differing UK and EU interpretations of what is necessary to avoid one and how to protect the 1998 Agreement.
Notwithstanding the fact that avoiding a hard border will remain a priority of the UK and EU even in the event of a “no deal,” it is possible to read acrossfrom many of the technical notices produced by the British government (and by the EU) to see quite how “hard” the Irish border could be if normal third country rules apply to it as a UK-EU boundary.