John FitzGerald: Ireland could end up as roadkill in UK’s game of chicken with EU

The threat of tariffs and border controls on this island hasn’t gone away

Freight at Dublin Port. Photograph: Alan Betson

Freight at Dublin Port. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The problems of Brexit have not gone away with the agreement reached last December. The latest twist has been the unilateral decision by the UK to delay implementing the full terms of the Northern Ireland protocol. This is serious for Ireland because it threatens the integrity of the EU single market.

EU membership has been the key ingredient in raising Ireland from the status of one of the poorer EU members to one of the best-off, with the completion of the EU single market being one of the most important features in bringing that about, laying the foundations for the modern Irish economy.

From 1993 the single market ushered in the mutual recognition of standards and qualifications; it ended restrictions on trade in services; and, in public procurement, it introduced a prohibition on favouring national firms.

Without the single market, which the UK played an important role in developing, we would not have our pharmaceutical sector, IT sector or internationally traded services sector in their current forms. These are among the most productive and best-paid areas of the economy. Thus the single market is absolutely vital for Ireland, and we need to do whatever is necessary to protect our membership of it.

It is unclear why the UK has provoked the current crisis. Before the UK decision to delay implementation, rumour suggested that progress was being made in EU-UK talks on some of the difficulties that the protocol posed for Northern Ireland. However, these talks were not allowed to mature. Nonetheless, the talks continue, albeit in an awful atmosphere.

Onerous restrictions

Some of the restrictions on imports from Britain to Northern Ireland under the EU protocol seem unnecessarily onerous to protect the EU single market. In particular, the restrictions on what can be sold in supermarkets in Northern Ireland will potentially affect the range of goods available there, and their price.

It would be unlikely to threaten the single market if the EU rules were to be waived to permit UK supermarket chains to stock their Northern Irish shops as before, where these goods would be consumed only locally. Independent audit of the supermarket chains could prove that none of the banned goods were leaking into the EU supply chain. With goodwill and trust, that’s an issue that could be fixed.

Instead the UK is playing a game of chicken with the EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Announcing unilaterally that it is suspending full implementation is both unfortunate and, for Ireland, dangerous. Ireland and Northern Ireland could end up as roadkill.

There are number of ways that this could play out.

The best outcome is that the UK comes back into compliance over the next six weeks and the current unpleasantness can be put to one side.

However, if the UK refuses to implement the protocol, this would pose a permanent danger to the EU single market. If this danger were to became a reality, Ireland would either have to leave the EU single market or else introduce Border controls between the North and the Republic to protect that market – the very situation the protocol was designed to avoid.

Another scenario is that the EU parliament fails to ratify the agreement reached at the end of last year, due to the UK refusal to deliver on the exit agreement. If that were to happen, we would revert to a no-deal situation, with the immediate introduction of tariffs, border controls and many other types of dislocation in the relations between the EU and the UK.

Because the cause of such a breakdown would be the failure to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, the result would have to be the immediate imposition of a customs border on this island.

Customs controls

Two years ago, in the week before German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Dublin, there were a number of stories in the German press raising the question whether, if there were no deal, Ireland would choose to impose the necessary customs controls on the island to protect the EU market, or whether it would instead leave the EU single market and move closer to the UK.

These stories died the day of the visit because, clearly, the Irish Government explained that it would do whatever it took to maintain our current status in the EU, even if it required border controls.

A century ago Ireland chose independence at the cost of a border with customs controls. It would be a tragedy if the UK forced us to make that choice a second time.

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