by Frank Schnittger
Sat Dec 2nd, 2017 at 10:29:22 AM EST
As noted in previous diaries here and here, the Brexit talks (phase 1) are reaching a climax. Two of the three main issues have been more or less resolved. Agreement has been reached in principle on the UK contribution to outstanding obligations to the EU budget, and the status and rights of EU emigrants to the UK, with Theresa May essentially capitulating to EU demands on both issues. However one issue remains unresolved: the Irish border question - to the acute embarrassment of the Irish government which has an almost neurotic wish to avoid the limelight as being the one holding up the talks process in general.
The UK side have been convinced firstly, that the Irish government could be fobbed off with vague assurances of an invisible, frictionless border enabled by new technology. Then the UK side were convinced that the EU side would abandon the Irish government once it had settled the two other issues of most concern to the rest of the EU 27. Now that Donald Tusk has stated, in no uncertain terms, that the Irish government's position is the EU position, and that there will be "sufficient progress" to move on to trade talks when the Irish government says there is, the UK side has taken to denigrating the Irish government.
Varadker is said to be weakened by internal scandal, threatened by his deputy leader, Simon Coveney, and fearful of being outflanked by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein. He is said to be young and inexperienced, without the convivial emollient manner of his predecessor, Enda Kenny. The UK appears to be going through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Having been in denial that there was any Irish border issue at all, we have had the anger at the impertinence of the Irish government for even raising it. We may now be about to move into the real bargaining phase.
Paul Goodman, the editor of Conservative Home, has an interesting article in the Irish Times in which he takes up a suggestion from former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern (and suggested by me previously) that large companies could pay border tariffs remotely, in the same way as they fulfil their VAT obligations, while small companies and private individuals could be given a waiver: effectively paying to tariffs at all. But first, here is a snippet of his take on the current state of British Irish relations:
Standoff over Border is classic Irish-British misunderstanding
Brexit is bringing a golden age of Anglo-Irish relations to an end - a period stretching from joint EEC entry through the Belfast Agreement to Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland. It would be melodramatic to claim that a dark age may succeed it. But there is now a serious risk that the Brexit negotiations will collapse over the two countries' land Border, followed by years of mutual recriminations.
We are where we are partly because of a classic Irish-British misunderstanding - born of a failure of interest on the British side and, if I dare say so, a failure of imagination on the Irish one.
From the start, Britain has shown a lack of interest in the deleterious effects of Brexit on Ireland. There is almost no upside to it. Economically, the negative impact is undisputed. Politically, it tilts the balance within the European Union towards more protectionist and interventionist countries in Europe's south and east, leaving Ireland exposed as an English-speaking, free-trading and America-friendly economy. And culturally, Brexit disturbs the Irish psyche at an elemental level. To become an EU member has become synonymous in much of Ireland with being a modern country. Britain leaving raises memories of a troubled past.
There are two exacerbating complications. First, Border mapping has found 142 areas of North-South co-operation. This has clearly reinforced a sense in Ireland that maintaining anything like the status quo will be next to impossible. Second, to unpick the present arrangements has thus come to be seen as compromising the Belfast Agreement. Ireland tends to see continued EU membership as implicit in the agreement; Britain does not.
On the UK side of the Irish Sea, we have largely missed this development of the Irish position. When we speak of a hard Border, we have in mind checkpoints, watchtowers - all the paraphernalia of the Troubles. When a hard Border is spoken of in Ireland, it seems now to mean any significant departure from the present arrangements.
Which brings me to that failure of imagination. I suspect that a significant slice of opinion in Ireland doesn't really believe that Britain will actually leave at all. May's government is weak. There is a lively pro-Remain media in Britain, which is well read in Ireland. Britain wants a transition in any event. Put the three together, and it is easy to convince oneself that Brexit won't happen. If Ireland pushes hard enough at this moment of maximum vantage, some might think, perhaps Britain will at least give up on leaving the customs union.
I have responded to his piece in the comments as follows:
On the one hand, this is a brave attempt by a British conservative to come to grips with the differences in perspective in Ireland and the UK, and on the other hand, it is pure bullsh1t. There is no lack of imagination on the Irish side, and few doubt that the UK is intent on leaving the EU. The Irish position isn't based on wishful thinking that the UK will change its mind. It is simply that Brexit has major implications for our vital national interests, and we are every bit as entitled to fight for these interests as the UK is for theirs.
Chief of these is the maintenance of the Peace Process and the ongoing process of greater economic and social integration on this island. This trumps even the importance of our trade links to Britain, which are being terminally damaged by Sterling devaluation in any case. We will simply have to find other markets for our agrifood exports - ideally in the EU where they can replace existing UK exports soon to be damaged by WTO tariffs and possibly rendered impossible by regulatory divergence or lack of mutual recognition.
If it were simply up to Ireland, the fudge Goodman suggests would be all well and good, a classic Irish solution to an Irish problem. Charge the big import/exporters tariffs, and grant waivers to everyone else. It would even work in practice, as charging the tariffs could be done in the same way as charging VAT. But the EU is a rule bound system - and has to be if 27 often conflicting national interests aren't to cause absolute chaos. Try persuading the Germans and other Europeans that Ireland should be granted this unique trading advantage.
Rules are rules, and have to be the same for everyone. Every bit as much as Brexit means Brexit.
So yes, British and Irish relations are about to hit an all time low - or at least the lowest since Bloody Sunday. And it is because of the bloody arrogance of the British that they can pursue their own national interests (as they perceive them) and that everybody else has to simply like it or lump it. Opposing the impact of Brexit - which means moving the existing EU customs border from the mid-Atlantic to the middle of the island of Ireland - is absolutely against our national interest and so absolutely must be opposed. This is not disrespecting the British Brexit vote, it is respecting the Irish one, North and south, which is resolutely against moving that border onto our island.
The DUP is a sectarian party intent on imposing its agenda on the people of Ireland despite the fact that the Brexit referendum was defeated in N. Ireland by 56-44% - and N. Ireland is the only place the DUP has a mandate of any kind. If the Conservative government wants to be led by the nose by DUP that is their prerogative. But the Irish government will have no truck with it. If that leads to a complete breakdown in Brexit talks, so be it. If it leads to a general election and the formation of a UK government not dependent on the DUP, so be it. It is not the Irish government's job to prop up a disastrous Tory regime.
The alternative is a simple one: Move the external EU customs border from the mid-Atlantic to the Irish sea. If it can be made to be so frictionless, invisible, and trouble free as Tory and DUP propagandists claim, then what's the big problem with having it there? It need have no implications for national sovereignty whatsoever. Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but not part of the EU.
Northern Ireland can have a special economic zone status with an external relationship to the Customs Union and Single Market even if Britain does not, while remaining part of the UK. All the UK will be offered if the Brexit talks move on to trade will be a Canada like trade deal, and guess what? There is a hard customs border between Canada and the EU. This is the same customs border which will in future lie across the English channel and the Irish sea if N. Ireland is granted such special status.
The UK side in the Brexit negotiations fondly imagine that the EU will grant the UK a trade deal which will provide special access to the Single market which will be equivalent to being in the Single market in all but name - whilst still allowing the UK to "take back control" and make its own regulations and negotiate trade deals with third parties. NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN. Sorry, but the best the UK will be offered is the Canada deal with minor tweaks.
And this is precisely why the UK wants to postpone the border solution until after a trade deal is concluded, because then the UK would be able to use the argument: "ah but we have to have full and untrammelled access to the single market to avoid a hard border in Ireland." The EU is not going to submit to such moral blackmail, and that is why it has stood full-square behind the Irish position. No trade negotiations until the Irish border position is settled. Then you can get a Canada like deal (which otherwise would have required a hard border in Ireland).
The UK position is essentially based on the fiction that the EU doesn't have external borders, or if it does, that they can be made to be invisible, frictionless, and painless to administer and navigate. But the reality is that the EU has very real customs controls at its borders, even with respect to countries like Canada with which it has recently negotiated its most comprehensive trade deal.
The UK appears to be under the illusion that it will be able to negotiate a trade deal with the EU equivalent to membership of the single Market and Customs union, without the concomitant restrictions on their freedom to do their own regulation, control immigration, and negotiate their own trade deals. It is hoping to use the Irish border issue as leverage to force the EU to concede such a deal, as otherwise border controls would be needed at the N. Ireland border. It is thus in the EU's interest, every bit as much as it is in Ireland's interest, that the border issues are resolved before the trade talks even start. Hence Donald's Tusk's support for the Irish government position.
Whichever way you dress it up, the only way that the border issue can be resolved is by moving the EU's external border from the Mid-Atlantic to the Irish Sea. Anything else would, effectively, be a repartition of Ireland which provoked a bloody civil war the last time it was done. Theresa May has to choose between appeasing the DUP or progressing the Brexit talks. Her choice.