Brexit: Why the Border issue is so hard to solve
Difficulties, potential solutions and limited oportunities to fudge a solution
As repeated by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Friday’s press conference following his meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk (above), Ireland’s favoured option is for the UK to remain in the UK trading bloc. Photograph: Laura Hutton/PA Wire
What are the talks about the Border focusing on?
It is all about avoiding the return of a Border on the island of Ireland and specifically one affecting trade. This is obviously a hugely sensitive issue politically for Ireland. However the key demands from Ireland are being couched in as technical language as possible to try to take the political heat out of the situation. I Ireland’s favoured option is for the UK to remain in the UK trading bloc, retaining membership of the EU customs union and the single market. The customs union allows free trade in goods and the single market ensures the same regulations and standards. Together they mean goods and services can flow freely across EU borders.
As Britain insists it will leave both, the Government is seeking “credible, concrete and workable solutions that guarantee there will be no hard Border”, no matter what happens in the EU/UK talks. The question is how to achieve this. The reason the talks are proving difficult is that to satisfy Ireland, the UK must relent on some of its Brexit priorities.
Is there a possible solution?
Remember that what is being looked for now is “sufficient progress” on the Border issue, not a full solution. It still won’t be easy – as we say over the weekend. Ireland is seeking a few guarantees . Some, in relation to support for the the Belfast Agreement, safeguarding cross-Border co-operation and the continuation of the Common Travel Area which allows Irish and British people to move and work freely across the two islands, should be ok, at least in terms of signalling sufficient progress. Ireland is also looking for some clarity on the transition phase which will operate after Britain leaves the EU.
The crunch issue is how to ensure free movement of goods and avoid the politically toxic return of Border checks. Ireland is looking for some kind of commitment that rules and regulations governing trade will be the same on both sides of the Border, and also that the same customs regime will apply. Indications are that this could be achieved via a commitment in the withdrawal treaty to avoid a hard Border, or an explicit spelling out at this stage of the regulatory and customs issues and the UK’s agreement to avoid divergence across the Border.
One suggestion is that the UK could sign up to a commitment to maintain “ regulatory alignment” across the Border in relation to trade rules and customs. Close attention will be paid to the precise wording and how firmly any commitment is locked in.
And why is it difficult?
The key problem is that keeping regulations and the customs regime the same on both sides of the Border implies one of two things. The Irish Government’s preferred route is for the entire UK to stay in the EU customs union and single market, or as close to this as possible. However London has ruled this out. It wants to escape EU rules and regulations and the jurisdiction of the European courts and also be able to do its own trade deals with third countries such as the US.
If the UK does leave the EU trading bloc, then the only way to achieve the same trade rules across the Border is for the North to stay inside. This would mean a regime different in the North to the rest of the UK. The North would – effectively – be staying in the customs union and at least part of the single market, while the rest of the UK left. The DUP has a problem with this – and so does London.
Is there room for a fudge?
It won’t be easily found. Similar regulations in areas like agriculture and food already operate on both sides of the Border and agreement should be possible here – and also to continue arrangements such as the common energy market. But the movement of manufactured goods across the Border is the real problem. Business in the North won’t want new controls between Britain and Northern Ireland, which would be needed if a different regime applied there to the rest of the UK. And Ireland won’t accept new controls at the Border. Some kind of a new trade deal between the EU and the UK might make all this easier, but this is a long way off. Some issues might also be put under the control of a devolved government in the North, though of course there isn’t one in place at the moment.
What about using technology and new administrative arrangements?
This was the early solution put forward by London. However, under any likely regime, checks will be needed somewhere, even if SMEs are excluded and big companies can do the paperwork in advance. There is also the likelihood of smuggling and criminality. Dublin is worried that if it signs up to this it will put it at risk later in the talks of being pushed to accept the return of what is effectively a Border. This is what foreign minister Simon Coveney means when he says we don’t want to take a “leap of faith.”
What do Irish businesses think?
Businesses want free movement of goods across the Irish Border. But they are also conscious of the need for a new trade deal between the EU and UK and particularly for early certainty on a transition deal which they hope will allow existing arrangements to apply for at least a couple of years after Britain leaves the EU. So the Irish Government is to an extent balancing political and economic goals here