A simple way to look at the Brexit quagmire is through the simple tribal politics of Northern Ireland. Tony Blair’s one lasting political achievement was the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. As a result of this, the militarised border with the Republic was dismantled, and police and army checkpoints disappeared. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic have been parts of the EU single market, so customs weren’t necessary. The border is currently as open as that between France and Spain. Both factions in Northern Ireland are very happy with this.
Brexit puts the open border in question. The positions of the players, apart from the benighted UK government (latest take here), are quite simple.
The government of the Irish Republic insists that Brexit must leave the border open. This position does not depend on the personalities or party affiliation of the government – any conceivable government would say the same. Under the Lisbon Treaty, it doesn’t have a veto in the Article 50 withdrawal procedure, but it obviously keeps an influential voice in Brussels. It would have a full veto on an ambitious post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and the UK, needing ratification by member states.
The ruling party in Northern Ireland is the hardline Protestant/Unionist DUP, created by Ian Paisley. It favours the open border too. More important, it insists that the Brexit should preserve an open border with the rest of the UK. The handful of DUP MPs in Westminster are essential to Teresa May’s thin majority in the Commons, so they can for now get their way.
The EU (meaning here the Council, the Commission, and the Parliament – the front is united) sides with the Republic, a continuing member state, on the border with Northern Ireland. It apparently treats the hypothetical NI/UK border as a domestic UK matter.
In the UK-EU agreement in December 2017 that closed the first round of negotiations, the UK made this commitment:
The United Kingdom also recalls its commitment to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls. […] The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. […] In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the allisland economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
To secure the DUP’s backing for the package, May added this promise:
In the absence of agreed solutions […] the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.
The DUP won a bonus point by making this part of a commitment to the EU, not just to Northern Ireland.
Here’s the Red Hand syllogism.
A. An open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland requires that both be part of the European single market and customs union.
B. An open border between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK requires a UK single market and customs union.
Therefore to maintain both commitments made by May:
C. The UK as a whole has to remain part of the European single market and customs union.
This is technically possible – it’s the deal struck by Norway. Basically, Norway applies all the EU single market rules agreed in Brussels (about a third of all EU legislation) while having only a figleaf consultation on their content. It is also anathema to the hard Brexiteers who have the upper hand in setting British government policy.
The current May position is: no single market, no customs union, yes to an elaborate bespoke free trade deal after Brexit. The Northern Ireland issue is being addressed by handwaving about “regulatory alignment”. This is b/s. Either you have the same rules (or the large relevant subset of them) as the common market, or you don’t. It looks to me like printing the EU regulations (think 50 pages on standards for Level 3 self-driving trucks) on pastel Union Jack paper.
Something will have to give. Which will it be? The options are:
- A hard crash-out Brexit including Northern Ireland, and a policed border with the Republic. It’s contrary to the clear words of the preliminary agreement. It would make a free trade treaty impossible, not least because the Irish government would veto it. The new border posts would risk reigniting the Troubles. This won’t happen.
- A hard Brexit with NI inside the EU single market and an economic border between NI and the rest of the UK. This could reignite the Troubles in a different configuration. The DUP veto in the Commons today is an electoral accident and unlikely to last, so a Dolchstoss could become technically feasible – though politically very risky indeed. Boris Johnson or ultra-Brexiter lunatic Jacob Rees-Mogg would probably be up to this betrayal of the Ulster Unionists, indeed of the Union, but I doubt if Teresa May (formerly an effective hardline Home Secretary) would be.
- A soft Brexit with a Norway deal. Like the proverbial Seattle coffee shop offering of a decaf latte with skimmed milk, you could call this “why bother”.
This situation is very peculiar. The most effective political opposition to the Brexit folly is being put up by a bunch of Ulster sectarians whose main worldview was set in 1690. British businesses, including financial ones, who face disaster if free trade with Europe is lost, seem paralysed by tribal loyalty into ineffective hand-wringing. The latest contribution of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to a great constitutional crisis is a manifesto on animal rights with 50 policy proposals. His position on Brexit is to support the hacked referendum and criticise whatever May is doing. This man has a good chance of becoming Prime Minister. God Save the Queen, indeed.
Footnote for aficionados: customs union and single market
What’s the difference? Explanation.
The EU started out as a customs union under the 1956 Treaty of Rome. This implies not much more than common external tariffs. With Margaret Thatcher’s encouragement, it extended this from the 1980s to all the non-tariff barriers to trade: rules of origin, technical and regulatory standards, limits on subsidies, banned goods like ivory, and so on. Many of these rules are policed at borders by customs officers, along with criminal law enforcement against people smuggling and drugs, so it’s rather confusing. The simplest take is that a customs union is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a single market.
Footnote 2 : Origins of the Red Hand
A variety of lurid legends with a Game of Thrones flavour are canvassed here.