Colonial nightmare returns for Ireland in spectre of checks with rest of EU

Europe Letter: Vehemence of denial reflects threat the idea poses to EU’s raison d’etre

The report dropped like a bombshell. "EU officials and diplomats are discussing an emergency plan to solve the impasse over the Brexit settlement in Northern Ireland, " the article by Politico Europe began, "by restricting Ireland's access to the bloc's single market for goods".

The nightmare scenario that checks would end up being imposed between the Republic and the rest of the European Union if an agreement could not be reached to have them between Britain and Northern Ireland has loomed on the edges of the imagination of Irish officials since the Brexit referendum in 2016 – a prospect so dreadful it is rarely named aloud, for fear of giving it oxygen as a possibility.

It would mean that Ireland would bear the costs of Brexit on Britain’s behalf, and be dragged against its will out of the single market and into an unhappy de facto economic union with Britain. For Ireland, a repeat of the imperial past; for Brexiteers, a neat solution.

The denials of the report were swift and emphatic. EU leaders simply "will not allow the former coloniser to force Ireland out of the internal market", one EU diplomat said; an official dismissed the report as a "load of s***e". Maros Sefcovic, the EU's head of relations with the UK, told journalists: "The article is simply not true."

The vehemence of the reaction reflects the harmfulness of the suggestion to the bloc’s raison d’etre: that being a member is better than not being a member, and that 27 countries can better pursue their interests collectively than apart.

Solidarity

"If this happens, it would be the EU letting the British government win, and selling Ireland down the river," MEP Billy Kelleher said in a statement in response to the report. "It is not acceptable and must be opposed in order to protect the core EU principle of solidarity between member states."

So where could the idea have come from? The authors of the report, Cristina Gallardo and Anna Isaac, quoted an EU official saying that the possibility of "consequences for Ireland" if Britain continues not to implement agreements is unspoken but "sous-entendu" – implied. A French official was reported to have described plans for a barrier between the Republic and the rest of the EU as emergency planning, in the absence of contingency plans by the Irish Government.

At times during the negotiations when a “no deal” disaster loomed, national EU governments were always calmly clear that checks would have to go somewhere. For Ireland, this crash-out scenario entailed a choice between two unthinkable options: imposing checkpoints across the island, or accepting the extension of Britain’s economic border to encompass the Republic as well.

The British government casts EU insistence on implementation of the checks required in the agreement in the Irish Sea as typical bureaucratic pedantry from Brussels. But the force behind the demand for compliance has always come from EU capitals, for whom a hole in the side of the single market is an unacceptable threat to national interests.

If there are no controls from Britain into Northern Ireland, particularly on high-risk food and agricultural goods, national governments simply have no idea what could be ending up in their markets from or via Britain. The import of human or animal disease is a significant fear, as is the undermining of the single market itself. This is the EU’s most treasured achievement and backbone of its wealth, which is based on free trade for market participants that agree to follow the same high standards.

Remote access

An agreement by Britain that EU officials could remotely access and monitor customs data to see what goods were crossing into the North and what checks were being imposed was crucial to winning the support of the capitals to the controversial idea that Britain could be trusted to police the single market border in the first place. Britain’s failure to allow IT access, leaving the EU entirely in the dark, supposedly due to a digital hitch, has rankled deeply.

In the Irish Government’s eagerness to dampen tensions over the protocol, it has suggested compromises on implementing the deal that are beyond the comfort zone of some EU capitals. At times, Irish figures have come close to echoing British government talking points. The 27 agreed the EU would “continue to be united in its engagement with the UK” last month – an indirect acknowledgement of the risk of division.

The idea of checks between Ireland and the rest of the EU is nowhere near a concrete contingency. But the airing of the idea could be a reminder to Ireland that full implementation of the protocol is in its interests too.