Ireland faces the very real threat of a no-eel Brexit
Europe Letter: Lough Erne’s fascinating eels highlight what is at stake in the UK’s exit
Illustration of a European eel (Anguilla anguilla)
I confess to approaching this week’s letter with some trepidation.
Your correspondent was given the firmest of reprimands by an Irish diplomat here for even daring to raise my subject matter, the fascinating eels of Lough Erne and their cross-Border peregrinations, with officials who had far more important concerns.
Frivolous. Unserious journalism. And my writing was likened, God forbid, to the journalistic contribution of Boris Johnson. Ouch!
That gibe hurt. Johnson’s singular contribution as Brussels journalist was to invent a new class of fake news, the euromyth, of which the curved banana is the most infamous. In other words, he told lies, with a flair seldom surpassed. I am trying to tell the truth and, as my small but loyal fan base will attest/complain, am all too willing to embrace the sort of complexity which was and is anathema to Boris.
What apparently caused such pain in the Irish Permanent Representation and led to the reproach was a story I had written the previous day. It was about no-deal planning with regard to the Border and the likelihood of a ham sandwich walked over the Border from Derry to Donegal being confiscated when it reached the southern side in such a scenario.
In a no-deal scenario the UK will be treated as a “third country” and face the restrictions applied to one – notably a prohibition on the import to the EU of all animal-based food products unless by an authorised importer whose product has been checked to meet EU standards. Hence the signs that many visitors will already have seen in airports for passengers arriving from outside the EU.
The point of the story, expressed, I hope, in accessible language, was that this requirement will be particularly onerous on the Irish Border, across whose hundreds of crossing points such product now flows freely – think only of the countless trips made to cross-Border supermarkets for the family weekly shop. I pointed to its absurdity and unenforceability when neither the Government nor the North’s authorities say they have any intention of imposing any physical infrastructure for checkpoints on the Border. Let alone sandwich police.
How the Government intends in a no-deal situation to reconcile its legal obligation under EU law to check incoming animal and food products close to the point of entry with that open-Border aspiration remains unclear. EU commissioner Phil Hogan more or less acknowledged this point to me succintly the other day when I asked him whether I could take some cattle to market on Saturday after the UK had potentially left the EU.
“Leave your cows at home for a few days,” he suggested, his down-to-earth advice presumably also raising hackles in the Embassy.
Yes, no-deal chaos on the Border is a serious issue whose impact on people’s daily lives is almost certainly likely to be more serious than they currently understand. In many ways.
So, I say nervously, no apology will be forthcoming for mentioning them
And so to Lough Erne’s eels (s Anguilla anguilla), an endangered species whose annual 6,500km migration to the Sargasso Sea is one of the greatest in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately the migration has been interrupted by the building of a power station on the river Erne that the eels cannot pass on their way to the sea at Ballyshannon. The problem has been addressed with the seasonal deployment of lorries with aerated water tanks to transport trapped live eels around the turbines.
The protection of the eel is just one of 156 areas of North-South co-operation underpinned by joint obligations to EU regulations and to the Belfast Agreement – and a commitment to which is part of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement.
I was asking both the European Commission and the Irish Embassy: in the event of a no-deal, what sort of commitment was forthcoming from the UK to ensure its continued cross-Border transhipment? And was the EU willing to waive third-country live-export restrictions to allow this transportation across the Border? To date I have had no answers to my questions.
It is true that the fate of the eels can be said to be small beer compared with the impact on the Irish economy of a no-deal Brexit. But it is an illustration of the breadth of the potential impact, which I and this newspaper have reported on extensively. So, I say nervously, no apology will be forthcoming for mentioning them.
As you read this, the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit in the short term will, hopefully, have receded. The EU summit was expected to grant British prime minister Theresa May another negotiating extension. But no-deal has not gone away. There is no guarantee that Mrs May can secure a deal with Jeremy Corbyn, and none either that the House of Commons can rally behind a majority position.
We may well be back all too shortly facing up for real to a dreadful prospect in which, among other issues of greater import, the fate of eels and ham sandwiches will again be on the order of the day.