Brexit will force creative thinking on status of North

Hard or soft? Complex Ireland question is the opportunity for a less binary approach

The long goodbye: European Council president Donald Tusk with British prime minister Theresa May, June 22nd. Photograph: AP

The long goodbye: European Council president Donald Tusk with British prime minister Theresa May, June 22nd. Photograph: AP

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Talks on Brexit opened this week in Brussels, bringing swift recognition of how complex the Northern Ireland dimension of the negotiations will be. Calls for imaginative and creative ideas to tackle them require well-informed research and debate.

Because they encompass the EU’s external border regime, talks on Ireland cannot finish until the UK decides whether it wants to leave the single market and the customs union. Its ministers insist this is their goal even though the election outcome as well as growing political and interest-group pressure make it increasingly unlikely they will end up there.

The binary choice between hard and soft versions of Brexit is politically necessary at this stage of the talks. But it obscures the possibility of more flexible, elastic or differentiated outcomes which would better suit Ireland’s complexity. There is an opportunity to influence those outcomes constructively through the dialogue process on Ireland agreed this week between the deputy EU negotiator Sabine Weyand and Oliver Robbins, the main British negotiator.

In that light the DUP’s deal with the Conservatives provides a direct channel alongside the British-Irish one and a potentially restored Northern Ireland executive.

Katy Hayward of Queen’s university argues that such complexity is really a strength if this opportunity is properly taken up.

The Brexit talks are centrally concerned with different versions of sovereignty. Whereas the EU model shares sovereignty, the UK wants to deepen it by restricting it to the UK. But this is discordant with the Belfast Agreement and its joint Irish, EU and UK citizenship provisions. That makes Ireland a unique “testbed for both the EU’s flexibility and the UK’s durability”.

Rather than pursuing a path of competing nationalisms Hayward argues it will be possible to explore how existing Irish-British institutions running North-South and east-west can be expanded to recognise the interdependencies which will survive Brexit. New cross-Border bodies dealing with electricity, environment, telecommunications or higher education research could be created to supplement those currently dealing with trade, food and waterways. Similar regimes can be imagined to deal with customs, immigration, agri-food and manufacturing standards. They would run east-west as well as North-South.

Flexibility

Such a Belfast Agreement-plus would necessarily become part of a wider EU-UK agreement on Brexit. Flexibility is built into the DNA of European integration, internally and externally. Policy centralisation varies by function and territory when opt-outs, multiple speeds and different capacities are taken into account. But the treaties balance such diversity with a commitment to an inclusive legal order. Membership therefore matters, especially when states join – or leave.

Beyond that, the EU’s flexibility also applies externally. The UK’s search for suitable bespoke models to match its desire for a “deep and special partnership” with the EU comes up against legal constraints on securing privileged access to the single market and customs union – having its cake and eating it.

Another group of academics in Queens has proposed that Northern Ireland becomes a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) even while the rest of the UK seeks a different relationship. (Scotland could also join the EEA as its government has proposed). One of them, the political scientist David Phinnemore, links this to internal and external “differentiated integration” in the EU. The Swiss political scientist Frank Schimmelfennig has done extensive research in this field and places Brexit firmly in its external aspects. Other specialists like him are exploring similar options. They foresee a rational outcome placing the UK in a concentric circle with other EU partners. The negotiations are about the conditions attached.

The UK’s own durability is also at stake. The DUP puts this centre stage and prime minister Theresa May claims the election helped hold it together in Scotland through the strong Conservative performance there. But the DUP’s hard bargaining stokes English resentment about the North’s differential transfers. And Brexit’s retrogressive economic impact on the North and the UK as a whole will play out in coming years. Phinnemore highlights how new official research shows the North imports far more from the EU than previously assumed, having a £2 billion deficit in 2014, when workforce numbers are factored in, rather than a surplus. This means it will be far more affected by a hard Brexit than the DUP believes.

Cooler UK ministerial heads foresee a long UK transition period out of the EU. Cooler Irish ones should explore how this can be turned to Ireland’s advantage by softening the departure.

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