Dublin’s threat over Irish airspace could lead to dangerous brinksmanship

Dublin’s threat over Irish airspace could lead to dangerous brinksmanship

One element absent from the discussion of the broader implications of Brexit is what impact will the confrontation with Brussels, on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal, have on Russia. During the Cold War, the Kremlin never concealed its unhappiness with the rise of the EU. It feared the entity becoming a rival pole of authority on the European continent. In particular, its mere existence could stimulate the efforts of satellite states to break free from Soviet overlordship.

Within fifteen years of the Cold War ending, seven former communist states were full members of the EU along with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Post-communist but authoritarian Russia has never become reconciled to the departure of the Baltic states which have also been NATO members since 2005. During the football World Cup, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian regiments would be named after places beyond its Western frontiers which had been occupied by his country’s forces in the recent past.

Analysts fear that one way they will return to Russian suzerainty is if the United States repudiates Article 5 in the NATO Charter which states that an attack on one member is an attack on the entire alliance. Huge opposition to such a move would exist in the US policy-making establishment. But what if it is the deteriorating relations between Britain and the EU power centres which instead opens up the chance of the democratic map of Europe being rolled up by authoritarian forces in the east?

This thought occurred to me when I saw the contents of a speech made by the Irish Taoiseach on Wednesday (18th July). Leo Varadkar said that London should not be surprised if Dublin withheld Irish airspace from British commercial aircraft in the event of a hard border emerging between the two parts of Ireland in the wake of Britain departing the EU. Closing airspace in a time of peace violates aviation treaties of which both Ireland and Britain are signatories. But no matter.

To paraphrase Charles de Gaulle: “Treaties are like roses… They last while they last.” This phrase should be remembered when the EU says that its rules require it to police its external borders and protect the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

In fact, supposedly sacrosanct rules have been waived frequently in order to preserve Franco-German relations or to advance the cause of ‘ever closer union’. Thus the rule requiring membership of the eurozone to be available only for countries that met fairly stringent economic conditions were set aside to allow Italy and Greece to join. Similarly, those producing automatic fines for eurozone countries which breached the budgetary rules were waived in the case of France and Germany [discussed in my book Europe’s Path to Crisis, Manchester University Press, 2014, pp. 20-24).

Arguably, Theresa May’s biggest miscalculation after she became Prime Minister in July 2016 was to decide to negotiate on terms basically set by the EU. She accepted that there would have to be a hefty bill for leaving and signed up to the timetable for how the talks were sequenced.

Brussels mandarins may be hopeless at getting most of the EU’s projects off the drawing board, but they are legendary hagglers. Michel Barnier and his team quickly spotted that Ireland might be their best chance of reversing or even softening Brexit to the point that it became Remain under another name. So Brussels decided to weaponise the Irish border and turn it into a vital issue of principle.

We were told that unless Northern Ireland could be allowed to remain in a common regulatory area with the rest of the EU, a hard border would have to be erected. This power play got underway in 2017 not long after a report commissioned by the EU itself (drawn up by the former Director of the World Customs Organisation) “found plenty of ways in which technology could be used to avoid the need for erecting new infrastructure at the Irish border”, as CapX reports. Indeed, such a system has been successfully tested on the Norway-Sweden border.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was even invoked. The EU had played little role in bringing peace to Ireland and was not a co-signatory. Some of the leading British establishment figures, such as Lord Patten of Barnes and ex-Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major claimed peace in the British-ruled province would be imperilled if Brexit ever went ahead. The Dublin Government, headed by Leo Varadkar since 2016, agreed. Last month, its government chief whip, Joe McHugh, even asserted that the creation of a hard border would not be tolerated. 

The only group likely to vigorously challenge the existence of a border would be Republican extremists. They had been emboldened by the Good Friday Agreement which had allowed the release of numerous prisoners convicted of murder, some of whom had only served months of their sentences. So absolute was the determination to reverse Brexit among highly-placed europhiles in Dublin and London that it looked as if some of these statesmen were even prepared to give encouragement to violent extremists.

Theresa May’s response to these threats was craven. Instead of urging the EU to allow Ireland to strike a bilateral deal with Britain so that trade and communications could be largely unaffected by Britain’s departure, she has spent months (along with her Remain-minded advisers) trying to come up with some formula that will appease Brussels and Dublin. Even now it seems never to have occurred to her that the intransigence of the EU does not stem from any point of principle but is a calculated step meant to break her resolve and possibly remove her Government from office.

Turning back to Russia, what might hard-headed operatives in Moscow have made of the way that the silky but ruthless Barnier has cornered Britain over what to many seems a minor issue?

I suspect Kremlin figures, involved in restoring Russian state influence during the Putin era, will have developed some admiration for the tigerish way in which Barnier & Co are maximising the interests of the EU in the face of a revolt against British insurgents led by unprepared leaders consumed by doubt.

There will surely be hollow laughs in the Kremlin when they see Barnier at the Irish border saying that it is the welfare of communities there which chiefly motivates him. Over a long historical period, Moscow has used similar tactics in contested regions like the Caucasus to advance its interests. It has noisily taken the side of a specific faction in a previously obscure local dispute. Warlike rhetoric has been dispensed before Russia establishes a direct and long-term presence.

This is the behaviour of imperialists in all ages, especially when up against an irresolute ruler like Theresa May who refuses to deploy the strength of her realm to defend its boundaries or core interests.

Boris Johnson reproached her for her timorousness in his resignation speech this week:

“Worst of all we allowed the question of the Northern Irish border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so political charged as to dominate the debate. No one on either side of this house or anywhere wants a hard border. You couldn’t construct one if you tried. But there certainly can be different rules North and South of the border, to reflect the fact that there are two different jurisdictions. In fact, there already are.” 

Within hours, Leo Varadkar proceeded to issue his sub-Napoleonic threat to wage a 21st century air blockade against the UK. It is worth asking what is his motivation? Does this socially radical friend of Canada’s Justin Trudeau see Britain as a foe of a global liberal order whom Ireland is uniquely placed to force into a humiliating retreat under its weak leadership?

With an election just months away, are his motives more simple? Dose he wish to outbid Sinn Fein on the nationalist front and ensure that it cannot foil his plans to dominate the politics of the Republic? Does he recognise that a governing elite which is even worse at home than the EU is at running key services, can stay in power through mobilising the latest nationalism of a large part of the Irish electorate?

Whatever drives him, he is playing for high stakes. In an economic contest with Britain, Ireland is likely to come off worse.

And Varadkar is unlikely to receive much practical help from the EU. Brussels is now drawing up plans to harmonise corporation tax, which means the tax incentives which were the primary cause of multinationals locating their headquarters in Ireland will end.

But far more seriously, when an Irish leader (apparently with the full support of EU decision-makers), threatens to close his skies to planes destined for Britain, he is ripping apart a major foundation of European peace. It takes no imagination to sense the joy in the Kremlin at the latest turn in the stand-off over Brexit. The Kremlin will have a respectable precedent to block entry to the airspace of the Baltic States if it can think up an excuse as flimsy as Varadkar’s.

Two mysteries finally: why is the EU shredding its reputation for being a peace project by risking the revival of the Irish Troubles in violent form and behaving like an aggressive 19th century power towards Britain? Secondly, why does the current Government in London let it get away with it?