Cliff Taylor: Ireland may face very uncomfortable choices in a no-deal Brexit

Border checks would be essential in some capacity if the UK crashes out of the EU

European Union leaders gave Prime Minister Theresa May assurances on Thursday (December 13) that they would seek to agree a new deal with Britain by 2021 so that the contentious Irish 'backstop' is never triggered.

 

Brexit brings many moments when you just want to fling something at the telly. One that always gets me is when one of the Brexiteers starts pushing out the line that if there is a no-deal Brexit then the UK will not put up an Irish border, so why would Ireland want to do it? It is a way of arguing that the backstop is unnecessary. And it is nonsense.

It all points to a really tricky dilemma for the Government in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and the potential for some very uncomfortable choices. Because if anyone thinks that the EU is to going settle for open borders into the single market they are gravely mistaken.

Nowhere in the world is there a completely open border between two different trading blocs. And if the UK crashes out without a deal next March, then it will immediately leave the EU customs union and single market. While technology and new procedures can certainly minimise the need for checks and make things run more smoothly, they can’t do away with the need for checks.

The official Government position is that Ireland is not making any contingency plans for a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, even if the Taoiseach has hinted at problems such as smuggling. Tactically this is tricky. Any pretence in Dublin that somehow we could avoid border checks in the event of a no-deal Brexit risks playing into the hands of the hard Brexit lobby, who then ask why a backstop is needed in the first place.

Indeed, the very existence of the backstop – the insurance mechanism that whatever trade deal emerges in future there will be no hard border – and its complexity shows just how difficult it is to construct a way to avoid all Border checks.

‘Third country’

So what happens in a no-deal scenario, now a real risk in the absence of any clear way forward?

The UK would leave at the end of March and immediately become a “third country” from the EU’s viewpoint, in other words one outside its customs and regulatory regime.

No enforcers from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – the body which oversees world trade – would arrive on day one to set up checkpoints. Nothing at all might happen for a period. The UK would be unlikely to immediately change the tariffs on goods coming in from non-EU countries or its regulations, so everyone might let things continue for a period. But this won’t last for long.

There is no way that this can be fudged for any prolonged period

Talk to any politician from one of the big continental players and it soon becomes clear that their commitment to protecting the EU’s single market – which allows free movement of goods, capital, services and people – is absolute, or near it. Nothing would undermine the integrity of the single market more quickly than leaving the back door open.

UK goods after a no-deal Brexit, would be in a separate customs and regulatory regime. They can’t just float freely into the single market. Checks would be needed to make sure that trucks contained what they were meant to contain, that duties were paid, that animal and food safety regulations were being applied. And on and on.

Without controls goods could enter the UK from third countries and then transit on into the single market unchecked. And, of course, there is the certainty of smuggling.

World trade system

There is no way that this can be fudged for any prolonged period. And the UK’s insistence that it won’t put up a border wouldn’t last longer than a few weeks either. If it wants to participate in the world trade system and do new trade deals it has to act like a proper trading country and follow the rules of the WTO – under which it would trade after a no-deal – which are that it can’t give one country’s imports preference over any others unless a formal trade deal is done. And this means the same borders and tariffs for everyone.

The Taoiseach, presumably recognising the reality of what all this would mean, has said that a “no-deal deal” would be needed to manage the Border situation. He is right, but it is far from easy to see a way out. Checks in the Irish Sea would be a non-runner politically for the UK, and be practically impossible unless the North – at least – stayed aligned to EU customs and single market regulations. This would be back to the original backstop plan which was roundly rejected in London and by the DUP.

This would mean checks at the Irish Border. If that does not happen then we can expect the EU to insist that they take place as goods leave Irish ports and airports for the continent. I’m not even sure if they would agree to this – Ireland, after all, is a member of the single market. But for Ireland it could be the ultimate choice between the political imperative of avoiding the return of a visible border and the economic imperative of our single market membership.

Compromise

The EU side will ramp up the “no-deal” fear next week as it starts to publish detailed plans for this scenario. The point of this is to try to push the UK towards some kind of compromise. But how this might be achieved politically is now far from clear.

Brexit is being pushed to two extremes. At one end is the no-deal crash out. At the other is a second UK referendum or some political move in London to pull support behind a softer version of Brexit. It is all duck or no dinner – or something close to it.

For Ireland, one outcome sees a good chance of the Border question solved and minimising economic damage, and the other sees chaos and difficult choices.

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