Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Britain’s attempts to leave the European single market are threatening to re-ignite an old conflict.
If you’re looking at the British media, you might be forgiven for assuming that some kind of war has broken out between Britain and Ireland. A spokesperson for British far-right party UKIP claimed Ireland had “threatened” the U.K., taunting it as “the weakest kid in the playground.” The Sun declared that Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar should “shut his gob…and grow up.” Even more outrageously, the associate editor of Britain’s Telegraph complained that Ireland has “poisoned U.K. politics and brought down governments for centuries”—which, given the countries’ grim shared history, is a bit like blaming Ireland’s punched-in face for getting England’s fists bloody.
So what’s behind this wave of embittered tub-thumping on the British right? The same one that’s been the source for most of Britain’s bizarre political behavior over the past 18 months: Brexit. While the U.K. is committed to leaving the European Union, the Republic of Ireland has never conceived of leaving. And that’s turning the Irish border into a virtual battleground.
Explaining exactly what is going on between Britain and Ireland is a process that’s well worth going through just to understand the complexities that the Brexit process entails. The bare bones of the problem are as follows…
Meet the E.U.’s least-watertight border
When Brexit happens, it will create the U.K.’s first-ever land border with the E.U., on the frontier between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This shouldn’t pose passport problems, because the U.K. and Ireland have a longstanding passport-free Common Travel Area agreement. But because Britain is on course to leave the E.U.’s tariff-free single market, imports and exports must somehow be monitored across this 310-mile-long barrier. Controlling this flow by a so-called “hard” border—that is, one with checkpoints and customs controls—would be quite the job. Looking in one direction alone, Northern Irish exports to the Republic are worth £3.6 billion ($4.8 billion) a year, while there are a total of 275 land crossings between the two parts of the island, more than twice the number there are along the E.U.’s entire eastern frontier. A hard border here could thus be a nightmare for both countries.
Keep calm and carry on?
The U.K. government nonetheless maintains that it won’t be necessary to have one. In a new super-lightweight customs system suggested by the British, large companies moving goods across the border would pay duties simply by declaring what they have shipped, while smaller companies would face no controls whatsoever.
If that sounds a little too easy, it’s because it is. With no controls for smaller businesses, the Irish border would become a quasi-legal smuggling paradise for importers wanting to avoid paying duty on their goods. There would be nothing to stop, say, a non-European company flying their goods into Belfast, then using a constellation of smaller companies to get it across the border tariff-free. There’s no way the E.U. could accept this. It could end up being a weird backdoor version of the single market—which Britain says it wants to leave.
And E.U. resistance isn’t the only barrier to this plan becoming a reality. Allowing E.U. importers to get their goods into Britain tax-free over the Irish border would be giving their countries preferential treatment, which would break World Trade Organization rules and expose the U.K. to a tsunami of litigation.
So flimsy is this British scheme, in fact, that some commentators are suggesting it was never intended seriously. Rather than proposing a real solution, it gives the appearance of proposing one, so that the ultimate imposition of a hard border can be blamed on the E.U., and on Ireland itself. This lack of clarity hasn’t escaped the Irish government’s eye, and they are insisting that some concrete, mutually agreed plan is thrashed out properly before Britain goes on to negotiating trade deals with the E.U.
Historically always lesser in power and wealth than Britain, Ireland is now in an unusually strong position to make demands: After all, it has 26 other European countries provisionally on this side. As much as the complexity involved, it seems that this shift in the power balance is what’s upsetting some Brexiters so much.
Threats to a hard-won peace
To talk of the border issue as one of trade alone, however, is to miss not so much the elephant in the room, but the great stampeding herd of elephants charging across it blowing war trumpets. The Northern Irish peace process—laboriously negotiated and delicately maintained since the early 1990s—has been greatly helped by easier flows and less tension along the border. In the 1950s, it was the site of guerrilla warfare campaign by the I.R.A, while visitors from the Republic were also subject to attacks and killings in the area from loyalist paramilitaries. Customs checks continued on the border until 1993, but in recent years the frontier has been largely fluid and peaceful, a line that can be crossed and re-crossed with little thought. And that has helped to diffuse tension both across the border and to an extent within Northern Ireland itself.
Since the referendum, the U.K. government has already risked jeopardizing the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brokered peace in the region by forming an electoral alliance with the hard-line loyalist Democratic Unionist Party. By attaching its electoral future to a sectarian party, the British national government has called into question its ability to maintain the “rigorous impartiality” stipulated by the agreement. If that weren’t bad enough, the U.K. is now hurtling toward re-solidifying the border—and potentially toppling a carefully balanced status quo—while contriving to insist that it’s doing nothing of the sort.
Grasping for a solution
So how can some system be worked out? The U.K. remaining in the single market is an obvious solution, but that’s not on the table. Another possibility: keeping Northern Ireland in the single market, along with the Republic, and having a customs border along the Irish Sea. This would still pose difficulties for the Republic, because it would face customs controls on trucks rolling off ferries and across Britain, which is still the main road route for freight between Ireland and mainland Europe. It would nonetheless help ease potentially disastrous tension at the Northern Irish land border though.
The main obstacle to this solution, however, would be the above-mentioned DUP, who are suspicious that a Northern Irish customs union with the Republic of Ireland but not with the U.K. might be a creeping move toward the pan-Irish unification they are constitutionally opposed to. Given that the DUP is currently keeping Theresa May’s government in power, it holds serious sway. At the same time, withdrawing its support for the May government might precipitate an election, ushering in a government led by the Labour Party, with which its relations are frosty. It’s going to be very interesting to see who gives.
High stakes and shouting
If a solution isn’t worked out, Brexit negotiations may stall, raising the risk of Britain crashing out of the E.U. with no deal. Some sort of compromise could ultimately be worked out, but current British approaches don’t inspire much confidence: So far, the problem is being greeted with a mix of magical thinking and shouting.
In addition, the general level of ignorance about Ireland on display in Britain now is shocking, whether it’s baseless assertions that Ireland wants to leave the E.U., that the Irish government plans to grab the north, or that the I.R.A might use Brexit as an excuse to start a bombing campaign. The Leave Camp promised that Brexit would deliver a new, truly global Britain. Instead, the country just seems to be shrinking by the day.