Ignore Brussels’ bluster about the Irish border: the EU has already bent border rules to accommodate the pursuit of peace

Ignore Brussels’ bluster about the Irish border: the EU has already bent border rules to accommodate the pursuit of peace

Brexit raises many administrative challenges. Indeed, the number that are belatedly being discovered by politicians, journalists and academics rather underlines the fact that the UK was prudent to get out of the EU now rather than in ten or twenty years’ time, when resoldering the interconnected circuitry would have seen post-Soviet levels of complexity.

One area above all, very understandably, generates particular concerns. The United Kingdom (setting aside here for now its Overseas Territories, and the funnel of the Channel Tunnel) has one major land border with an EU state. That border is of course that of Northern Ireland.

We should, however, avoid the pitfalls of shorthand. We might conversely put it that the EU shares one main land border with the UK. Or again we might talk of an EU member state, outside of the Schengen Zone, which is in a very particular quasi-union with the UK over shared external borders for people.

The reality is that the future of the physical form of the border is bigger than just the bluster of Brexit critics. It is certainly larger than any Commission negotiators in Brussels who seem tempted to go slopey shoulders, demanding London provides the solutions while they themselves do not reciprocate.

I would suggest that those critics need to wise up about whose pebble really is in this particular shoe, and for three reasons: it is in the Commission’s interests to push for a hard border; it is not in Dublin’s interests to go along with that; it is also in the EU’s track history to bend the rules over trade borders, so it will be a pure demonstration of its bad faith if it does not act innovatively now.

In an important number-crunching exercise, William Norton broke down what the introduction of tariffs means for current contributors to the EU budget. If there is no trade deal, the Commission stakes a claim to €7.1 billion of tariffs on UK trade, leaving it with a budget shortfall of just €3.8 billion (which, judging by preliminaries, it looks set to plug by limited budget cuts). Meanwhile, the larger reciprocal damage to EU exporters doesn’t affect the Commission. However, the worst hit by this policy would be the Republic of Ireland. Setting aside the impact on trade, just looking at the EU budget alone the figures reveal it faces a surcharge of nearly €1.5 billion into the EU budget. This means that EU membership fees put Dublin and Brussels (or at least parts of it) on opposite sides of the hard border debate purely on mathematical self-interest.

This may help explain why key figures (and ultimately it does boil down to individuals) have not been as helpful here as they have been in the past.

A new briefing note published today by the Red Cell points out that on three occasions the Commission has gone along with bending the rules over trade borders. It went along with treating East Germany as a backdoor member of West Germany for political reasons; it shuffled its feet for fifteen years over the change of status in Algeria when it became independent; and it has incorporated a Council-driven slider over customs arrangements on the Cyprus Green Line and beyond.

Now, one can argue that there were solid political reasons behind each of these, and that each was underpinned by a peculiar constitutional set of circumstances. West Germany had a territorial claim on East Germany and the deal facilitated détente; the Algerian situation was politically raw and it was convenient to park arrangements founded on the French constitution itself; and in Cyprus the south claims territorial jurisdiction across the whole island, a claim largely recognised internationally.

What cannot be claimed, however, since similar complexities equally apply to Ireland, is that these examples do not demonstrate precedent. In a European conflict zone, border rules have been bent to accommodate the pursuit of peace.

It is even the case that Northern Irish exceptionality has already been deployed within EU rule-making, since the Province has already seen occasions where it has been geographically considered separately from Britain, particularly over phytosanitary rules for livestock. Where the IT and records exist, Ulster farmers have been exempted from bans facing Great Britain.

The European Commission really has no excuse for not engaging constructively, and for raising the ‘hard border’ stakes.

We have heard a lot over the months about having cakes and eating them, and latterly, with Jeremy Corbyn’s speech, even mention of cherry gâteaux on stilts. But for all it wants to spin it the other way, Brexit is a two-way process. Much depends purely on the simple good faith of the Commission, which it has been withholding. And for all its bluster about what is deliverable, the EU already has a bigger history in border fudge than Thorntons.