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The Brexit roadblock | The World Weekly

The 20 miles of seawater between Dover and Calais has long been symbolic for a country that never quite fully embraced its EU membership. But now that it wants to cast off altogether, Great Britain has found it is anchored by something much tougher: the land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

While Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has always seen the border issue for the Gordian knot that it is, it appears to have treated it as one that could be gradually unravelled as Brexit nears reality.

The latest developments, however, show just how far the talks are from producing an arrangement that will avoid checks and controls along the Irish border, which some fear could destabilise Northern Ireland’s delicate political situation. 

Ireland meanwhile appears to be ramping up its demands on the border issue as the Brexit negotiations reach a crucial stage. A freshly leaked European Commission document suggests Dublin could indeed block access to the next phase of negotiations unless the UK dramatically updates its position on how to avoid a hard border.

The EU’s stance has been that the question of EU citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and the border issue must be resolved by December, before talks on future relations between Brussels and London can begin.

The UK, meanwhile insists that it can only be fully addressed in the second phase. However, the British government’s pledge to leave the European customs union and single market has made it fiendishly difficult to reassure the EU team on this front. There has been talk of giving Northern Ireland ‘special status’, allowing it to stay within European trade arrangements, but UK ministers have dismissed this as “impossible”.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Theresa May pause during a news conference at 10 Downing Street

The plan would effectively create a trade border along the Irish Sea, with consequences for the UK economy and Northern Ireland’s political stability. UK officials have said ‘special status’ could worsen tensions between unionists and nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is said to be hostile to anything with the trappings of a united Ireland. It is effectively propping up Theresa May’s minority government, an arrangement which critics say risks threatening the fragile peace process.

“We will leave the EU in 2019 as one United Kingdom,” the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, insisted in Brussels early last week.

The UK’s proposals to create “as frictionless and seamless a border as possible” using modern technology and a waiver system to eliminate physical border checks, however, have been rejected as “magical thinking” by EU diplomats. Before this week, British officials had reportedly thought their commitments to avoiding a hard border post-Brexit had been enough to park the issue until then.

‘Ireland’s moment of maximum leverage’

Until recently, the Irish government seemed to have been warming to the British position. Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said earlier this month that “genuine progress” had been made on border issues. 

“Every detail cannot be resolved at this stage,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph, while adding that “significantly more” would be needed from London.

Yet the leaked EU document suggests Ireland wants those extra commitments now. Said to have been circulated to the 27 member states and British negotiators last week, the paper, a negotiations update, says the divorce deal must respect "the integrity of the internal market and the customs union". Avoiding “regulatory divergence” on the island of Ireland is “essential” to preventing a hard border and protecting the peace process, it insists.

Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform think-tank, says the sudden swell of pressure is mostly down to Ireland’s fears over the point of Britain’s formal departure - March 29, 2019 - which, despite plans for a transition deal, still carries significant uncertainties.

Theresa May has refused to be drawn on committing to a “status quo” transition maintaining all the features of Britain’s EU membership, which some government Brexiteers are said to oppose. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, insists it is the only kind of transition still feasible.

“This is Ireland’s moment of maximum leverage,” Mr. Bond told The World Weekly. Anything other than a status quo transition would lead to “hard border infrastructure” in 2019, he argues, forcing the Irish government to take a stand.

It is not clear that the border issue must be completely resolved before December, however. 

“It is a feat of Irish diplomacy that the border issue was decided to be an issue for the first phase negotiations,” argues Nick Witney, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations and former UK and EU diplomat. “I would be surprised if it did prevent them from moving to the next phase.”

“What the EU team wants is money, and they’re quite prepared to leave a few loose ends,” he told The World Weekly.

The issue of the divorce deal is a key sticking point towards unblocking the talks. Theresa May is now reportedly preparing to double her offer to £40 billion as the dispute over how much Britain owes runs the clock down ever nearer to the December deadline.

 A former customs guard hut situated on the Irish border stands disused

Keeping Northern Ireland stable

Sooner or later, though, the border puzzle will have to be resolved. Its boundaries at least seem a lot clearer than they did a year ago.

In response to the leak, Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said his government would be satisfied with a “bespoke” arrangement keeping the “rules” of the customs union and single market, even if neither the UK nor Northern Ireland specifically were “members” of the arrangements.

In fact, some argue that Northern Ireland’s unionists could be persuaded to accept some form of ‘special status’.

The trick, argues Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast, will be to present it in a way that respects the sensitivities of Northern Ireland - where “language is very important”.

Ms. Hayward, who recently authored a report on Irish border communities’ perspectives on Brexit, says “the border issue has been presented as a binary choice between being close to the UK and being close to Ireland and the EU.”

The talks “must produce a solution that doesn’t undermine Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the UK,” but this does not mean that “practical” arrangements cannot be found to preserve the cross-border economy, she told TWW.

Ultimately, the ‘regulatory harmony’ needed for the frictionless movement of goods and services across the border already has the structures it needs. The DUP’s manifesto in the general election and the UK’s published Brexit position call for talks to recognise “all-island” arrangements like the single energy market, Ms. Hayward points out.

Some border issues, however, could need more than clever conservation of the status quo. Some worry about a “back door” for UK-EU migration after free movement ends, although registration systems of the kind used in Belgium could be emulated in order to avoid hard border infrastructure. How to levy tariffs without border controls, though, is much less clear.

Once Brexit talks progress to the next stage, new adjectives between “invisible” and “hard” may have to be concocted. Just as it has been for many years, delicate language will be key to keeping Northern Ireland stable.

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