Gove’s ‘border’ semantics do not rule out goods checks

Jaded Brussels troubled by UK focus on ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’

Michael Gove, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster: Some in Brussels feel they are dealing with a government of British fundamentalists – the “Tory Taliban”. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty

When a British government minister such as Michael Gove tells the House of Commons "There will be no border down the Irish Sea", Brussels listens.

It triggers familiar rumination about how to interpret British remarks. Is it posturing for a domestic audience? Tactical tough talk? Misunderstanding? Warning of an intention to break an agreement made just six months ago and signed into British law?

And how to reconcile it with the following Gove statement: “We will respect the withdrawal agreement, implement the Northern Ireland protocol”? Under that deal, the customs and goods checks required to enforce the edge of the world’s largest single market will take place along the Irish Sea.

There is a theory that reconciles both statements, and it hinges on the meaning of the word “border”.


Cows that arrive in Northern Ireland today from Britain are subject to checks at the port of Larne. This is not considered to have any territorial implication: it’s simply because the island is a single unit for the purposes of animal health.

Negotiating mandate

If such existing checks were scaled up, nothing would change, the thinking goes. So when Gove says there will be no “border”, in the politicised sense of the term, he’s being truthful. But he’s not saying there won’t be checks.

After years of Brexit drama, a jaded weariness has developed in Brussels towards the whole affair.

Britain’s negotiating mandate met a low-key reception. “All we’re saying is we’re studying this document carefully,” an Irish diplomat said. “We’re looking forward to negotiation starting next week.”

Others were blunter. “It’s largely in conformity with the UK’s earlier statements so no surprises there,” said one continental diplomat. “The language is somewhat adolescent but also that is not exactly new.”

The UK's emphasis on "sovereignty" and "independence" perturbs some EU officials, who read in it an unflattering implication about their own states. "Nobody casts any doubt on the economic and political independence of the UK," the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier remarked this week.

Economic pain

Some in Brussels feel they are dealing with a government of British fundamentalists – or the “Tory Taliban”, as they have been called. The scenario in which Britain reneges on the withdrawal agreement – an international treaty – is sometimes referred to as the “North Korea” option. (“The regime of Bo Jo-un” was one quip.)

But there is some relief that London appears to now acknowledge that some choices entail economic pain. Chief UK negotiator David Frost referred to "trade-offs" and "costs" in a speech in Brussels this month, while saying that Brexit was ultimately about more than just economics.

Is the British population on board too? Across Europe, there is concern about what will happen when the trade-offs hit home.

“An impoverished Britain is not good,” one observer remarked. “Not for Britain. Not for us.”