Saturday, 5 August 2017

Brexit: Solving The Irish Border Question

The border is almost imperceptible
Sometimes it is useful to look at a problem from afar.  The Irish border between Eire and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, is perhaps the most difficult issue on the Brexit agenda. I live way away in England.

Today the border is in practice almost imperceptible, but there is talk of making it very real again.

The view from Dublin, in the words of Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach (Prime Minister) is firstly " one on the island [Ireland] wanted to return to the days of a militarised, heavily policed border".  Not least because it is key to the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland, as well as economic and practical considerations.

He goes on to discuss the options. The UK could stay in the EEA (effectively the Single Market) or have a Customs Union agreement with the EU similar to Turkey.  Both would be regarded as 'Soft Brexit'.  He also says "We would only need a bespoke solution for Northern Ireland if Britain leaves the single market.- i.e. if there were to be a 'Hard Brexit'.

With a Hard Brexit, looking from afar, there is no clear obvious solution.  The least worst seems to be to make Northern Ireland a 'special case' and set the Customs and UK border at the Irish Sea i.e. seaports and airports.  That would still have opposition, as that "enraged unionists who saw it as a move to redraw the 1921 partition settlement on the island of Ireland." That would be seen as the first step to full Irish reunification, which many do not want. History matters. 

So looking from England there are two ideas to resolve the Irish border problem:
  1. Move the border to the Irish Sea, in terms of seaport and airports. But this would have some stiff opposition. 
  2. The UK remains in the Single Market, or at least a Customs Union

Leo doesn't see option one as feasible.  The latter idea of a "half Brexit" is very much on the table at the moment.  A cross-party APPG has been formed in Parliament with the specific objective of staying in the Single Market, and there is now much talk in the media.  I'll cover that idea separately, but it is certainly a key option for the UK generally.  It may be the only realistic option for the Irish border.

Leo Varadkar has also commented that the heads of the EU27 are meeting in October to discuss progress on the three key opening issues being negotiated.  One of these is the Irish border.  The UK government have already had 14 months to come up with an acceptable proposal. If no sensible progress has been made by the meeting, then Leo and the other 27 will no doubt take action.  Probably suspend the next phase of negotiations until the Irish border is resolved. That would put the negotiation timetable under even more strain than it is already.

Leo Varadkar's views at that meeting will be key.  Given the significance of any decisions there, he is now one of the most powerful people in Europe.

The UK remaining in the Single Market may be the only realistic answer to the Irish border.  An ideas for a two-tier Europe to achieve that is here. Or stopping Brexit altogether.

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