Playing the EU’s game on the border will damage Ireland’s interests

Playing the EU’s game on the border will damage Ireland’s interests

Ray Bassett is author of the recent paper Brexit and the Border: Where Ireland’s True Interests Lie published by Politeia

The Irish border continues to be a major obstacle to the successful conclusion of the Brexit negotiations. The search for a solution has been hampered by the history of the border itself and also the Irish Government’s strict adherence to the line laid down by Brussels.

So far, the European Union and Ireland have blocked all compromises proposed by the UK which do not involve Northern Ireland staying in the Single Market and the EU Customs Union. This is based on the so-called ‘Backstop’ option, which was included in the December understanding. This formula allowed the negotiations to proceed to discussing future arrangements. The EU claims that the Backstop means that should the UK leave the Customs Union, as promised by the Prime Minister, then Northern Ireland should stay aligned to EU rules, operating as in the Republic – essentially that Brussels would decide on economic matters in Northern Ireland. The UK strongly rejects this interpretation.

Since no British Government could possibly agree to a “hard” border in the Irish Sea, this is essentially a trojan horse to thwart the whole Brexit process. Ireland is being used as a weapon by both Brussels and Remain elements in Britain in this respect. If the Backstop is pushed to a stark conclusion, then the UK would have no option but to walk away. This would be anathema to Ireland’s economic and political interests. Also, the present aggressive stance by Dublin appears to be in conflict with its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement to treat the two communities in Northern Ireland with “parity of esteem”.

Any breakdown in the Brexit talks is not in the interest of Ireland which has extensive connections, not only North/ South on the island of Ireland but with the island of Britain. No other EU member state is so economically, culturally and ethnically intertwined with the UK as Ireland. It is vital for Ireland that a satisfactory outcome is achieved in Brexit and that no hard borders are established between the UK and the remaining members of the EU. Therefore, Ireland is not in any real position to threaten the future of the talks.

The Politiea paper looks at four options at resolving the border issue; the Backstop; the UK staying in the EU’s Customs Union; Ireland opting for an EFTA type arrangement with the EU; and a solution based on technology and relaxing the EU’s red line of “maintaining the integrity of the Union’s legal order” on the island of Ireland.

The only option, it concludes, which is politically possible is the technological one, since the other three have been rejected as non-runners. The technological option is based on the British Government paper of last August. This essentially calls for small scale trade and agricultural products to be exempt from border controls and that the larger enterprises, based either on workforce or turnover, operate a trusted trader system, well away from the border itself. This would be based, in part, on trusted trader systems operating elsewhere in the world, including Australia. However anything which operates on the Irish border would inevitably have to employ novel solutions.

The paper concedes that such an operation is unlikely to provide 100% satisfaction but could be subject of monitoring over time to ensure its smooth operation. As in many cases, the perfect may be the enemy of the good. If the technological solution is rejected, then we are heading for impasse and instability which is in nobody’s interest.

It also calls on the Irish Government to change the present course which will leave it dangerously exposed in the event of it going wrong and initiate immediate bilateral discussions with London to firm up the practical measures needed to make the technological solution a success.

And the paper calls on the Irish Government to engage seriously with Brussels in order to secure the best possible deal for the UK out of Brexit, as this outcome is very much in the Irish national interest too.