Questions over the Irish border are eminently soluble, if only the EU would allow the work to begin

Questions over the Irish border are eminently soluble, if only the EU would allow the work to begin

The Irish border has been, for nearly one hundred years, the land part of an international frontier between the UK and a separate Irish state. When the two states joined what would become the EU in 1973, it became additionally an internal European border. But it was only in 1993, with the development of the single (or internal) market, that goods were able to pass freely across its 499-kilometre length.

It is my view that Brussels and Dublin, for related reasons, have exaggerated the problem of the Irish border. It is eminently soluble on a bilateral – Irish and UK – basis, if only the EU27 would permit the work to begin.

Working with colleagues in the Legatum Institute after the referendum, I published a paper arguing manageability in September 2017: Mutual Interest: how the UK and EU can resolve the Irish border issue after Brexit. This has excited professional interest, but still the intellectually lazy view of an insoluble problem prevails in some quarters.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement (on which I authored a legal textbook), is no impediment to the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaving the EU.

If this was unclear in the immediate wake of the UK referendum, the Supreme Court dismissed all the special Northern Ireland pleading in the Gina Miller case in January 2017 (this battler for Brussels showing her true colours subsequently, when MPs declined her invitation to stop the UK notifying the EU under Article 50 of its intention to leave in March 2019).

The Irish border continues to exist in international law, and it may be conceived as performing three principal functions.

First, a security border, as during the ‘troubles’ of 1968 to 1998, when, with closures of minor roads, checkpoints and watchtowers, parts of it became very hard. Second, a people border, and here the news is only good: there has been a common travel area since 1922 (which the EU has recognised in the treaties), making for an unusually soft border. And third, the trade border, which is characterised by no tariffs (or quotas), and total regulatory integration, both making for relative invisibility but not the abolition of the border between two states.

The Legatum Institute paper contained two surprising (to me) sets of trade statistics: first, turnover in Northern Ireland, with only 5 per cent going to the Republic of Ireland (and 3 per cent to the rest of the EU); and second, the Republic’s imports and exports, with 24.3 per cent coming from Great Britain and only 12.3 going to the mainland. The data shows: how remarkably dependent the Republic remains upon the UK; and just how little all-Ireland trade there is.

It is truly perplexing that the Republic – its officials and politicians having been ‘Europeanised’ in the past four decades – has not seriously considered Irexit, as its national interest. The retired ambassador, Ray Bassett (who never served in the EU), is almost a sole voice calling for discussion of that option, as he did in After Brexit: will Ireland be next to exit? for Policy Exchange last summer. The Republic has a great deal to lose, and it knows it. That is why it is blaming the Brits.

This weakness, and political immaturity, has been exploited by the European Commission. I voted Remain in June 2016, but accept the referendum result of 52 per cent to 48 per cent, for constitutional reasons. The EU, however, has form when it comes to referendums: in 2001 (Nice), and again in 2008 (Lisbon), the Republic of Ireland voted against amending EU treaties; yet the country was made to re-run its national decision-making, and vote the correct way (which it did in return for oversold concessions).

Surprising as it is, the strategy of Monsieur Barnier remains, in part, to try and persuade the UK to: either stay in the EU; or to retain the single market and maybe even the customs union. Brussels has Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and Lord Adonis as self-appointed agents of influence and a largely Europhile official opposition in the UK – despite Jeremy Corbyn being Tony Benn’s representative on earth – making (existing) jobs and the economy the principal issue in the debate about withdrawal.

The other part of EU strategy has not been articulated clearly, although hints are being dropped. In March 1993, the UK – as part of the EU – helped create a so-called European Economic Area (‘EEA’), with the EU member states on one side of the table and Austria, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland on the other, as members of the European free trade association (‘EFTA’).

When the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, it will also drop out of the EEA. That is what Brussels would like to prevent – thus the talk of the Norway model.

But the UK, as a state, would have to vote to join the EEA as a non-EU member. How would that – and this is the problem for the Treasury – be squared with the Brexit vote?

London needs to up its game on the Irish border, by dispensing with the usual guilty response to London/Dublin difficulties. It also needs to properly situate this problem in the context of UK withdrawal from the EU. The best way would be to kill off the EEA option, with the UK on the other side of the table to the EU27 with, now, the EFTA survivors, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.