Boris Johnson must swallow his pride and make a deal with Dublin
The likely next prime minister must promise to safeguard an open Irish border, which means a de facto customs union, for the time being.
Boris Johnson, former U.K. foreign secretary, arrives at offices in the Westminster district of London, U.K., on Monday, July 22, 2019. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are battling to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party and British prime minister. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Build that wall! Build that wall! So Donald Trump’s fans roared their support for his xenophobic rants. So scream fans of Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit. He wants walls against the EU in place by 31 October. But he has no more idea than Trump about how to erect them. This is despite having been foreign secretary and with a former Brexit negotiator, Dominic Raab, at his side.
You cannot be outside a customs union and not have a border. You cannot have friction and no friction. A bureaucratic mountain of technology may withdraw the border some miles back, but somewhere there must be tariffs, payments, forms, regulation and inspection. A 40% tariff on a shipment of lamb is a barrier, wherever it gets levied. A chlorinated chicken inspection is a wall, wherever it is done.
In the Telegraph today, the only answer Johnson could give to this paradox is casually to refer to the moon. If the Apollo mission, he writes, “could use hand-knitted computer codes to make a frictionless re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Ireland border”. This trivialises what, for thousands of businesses, is now misery and, in the case of farmers, bankruptcy.
While no-deal Brexit may merely cause severe and costly disruption at Dover and other sea and air ports, the open roads of Northern Ireland cannot be so policed. No deal will mean anarchy, or state-sponsored banditry. Johnson continues to claim he can avoid a “hard Irish border”. But he still wants a hard border with the EU, so where is it to be? It can only be down the Irish Sea. Bang goes whatever is left of Johnson’s commons majority.
There is no majority anywhere, except in Johnson’s scrambled brain, for a no-deal Brexit. As Whitehall officials – if not men in white coats – gather round him in the coming weeks, they will tell him a brutal truth, political as much as administrative. He needs a deal badly, and the only route to that deal is through Dublin.
Johnson must go at once to Dublin and promise its prime minister, Leo Varadkar, to safeguard an open Irish border, which means a de facto customs union, for the time being. That is the only hope of Ireland inducing the EU27 to unlock some cosmetic redrafting of the withdrawal agreement – without which they will simply not play ball. Whatever humble pie he must swallow, Johnson must return from Dublin with a deal. So much for “taking back control”.
Trade is not about control but about power. The UK has little power against its bigger neighbour. If it wanted power it should have stayed in the EU, or at the very least in Thatcher’s single market. Johnson sacrificed such power to outflank his rivals for the leadership. He must now pay the price for that chicanery. An awful awakening beckons. If Johnson cannot get a Northern Ireland deal he faces parliamentary armageddon. Perhaps he can fly to the moon.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist