Is Britain now pushing for a post-Brexit border in the Celtic Sea?

If so, Ireland would risk being seen as less than a full member of the EU single market

British prime minister Boris Johnson. The speculation is that the UK would either abandon some or all checks on goods entering Northern Ireland if it  invoked article 16. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/EPA

British prime minister Boris Johnson. The speculation is that the UK would either abandon some or all checks on goods entering Northern Ireland if it invoked article 16. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/EPA

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We probably need to stop obsessing about Boris Johnson and David Frost’s attitude on Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. We know what we are dealing with at this stage – and it is unpredictable and dangerous. It is time to look at where this might go for Ireland – and the underlying message is that the fallout from Brexit is far from done.We are a long way from any kind of stable situation.

In the final months of talking in late 2019 on the terms of the UK’s exit, the same question kept arising – how is it possible for the UK to leave while avoiding a border either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland. The protocol was an attempt to square this circle. But it was a deal signed in haste, against a deadline. It didn’t so much solve the problem as sweep it under the carpet. It left a lot of practicalities to be sorted out – and trade rules are all about the detail. And, more fundamentally, it did not solve the original problem – because that’s impossible.

The protocol, particularly with the leeway suggested by the latest European Commission proposals, is probably as good as you are going to get, by way of a solution. It attempts to address the problems the protocol is creating in Northern Ireland, even if much detail has still be be fleshed out. The border would remain in the Irish Sea, but would be as light touch as possible.

And remember, the protocol does offer the North’s economy a real long-term opportunity in terms of free access for goods to the British and EU economies. The risk of throwing away this economic advantage in the row over the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice may yet have an impact on the political debate in Northern Ireland.

So what does the UK see as an endgame? If, say, it does trigger article 16 – which allows unilateral measures to be taken – arguing that the protocol is creating , as the text says, “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist” then the EU can take “strictly necessary” proportionate rebalancing measures. The protocol says very little about who can do what and why on the basis of article16. Though it does mention a “ diversion of trade” as one trigger, which is presumably why the UK is pointing to the big rise in trade across the Irish Border. (Of course this isn’t an actual problem, just businesses looking for solutions.)

Retaliate

The speculation is that the UK would either abandon some or all checks on goods entering Northern Ireland if it did invoke article 16. And we know that the EU is looking at how it might retaliate, via trade or tariff measures.The protocol says actions must be specifically related to the problems created, but it the language is general and open to interpretation. Trade wars hurt everyone, but with a UK government, which thrives on chaos and distraction in office, it cannot be ruled out. Ireland could get caught in the crossfire here, given our strong trading and wider economic and energy links with the UK.

But what is the UK’s long-term game plan, if indeed it has one? If it tears up the rules and stops checking goods crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland, then it presents Ireland, and the EU, with a problem. Everyone has agreed that there is no prospect of a border on the island of Ireland – either politically or practically.

Another solution

So is the UK trying to engineer a push from the EU for another solution, border checks in the Celtic Sea, or effectively in continental ports as boats arrive from Ireland? The EU would of course resist this. The whole point of the single market, of which Ireland is a member, is to avoid such checks. But faced with a situation where the UK simply refuses to check goods as they enter Northern Ireland, it is hard to know how the big EU players will react. The integrity of the single market is a vital political and economic goal. Is that what Johnson is planning to test?

For Ireland, a border in the Celtic Sea would mean some parallels in terms of the movement of goods as currently exists with the movement of people. Ireland is not a member of the Schengen agreement – to which 22 EU members and four other countries have signed up. It eliminates all border passport controls. The fact that Ireland was outside this tent made it easier to retain a common travel area with the UK, even after Brexit. And anyhow, as an island, not being in Schengen has not created major problems.

Single market

Any kind of trade border in the Celtic Sea would be much more concerning. Politically, Ireland would run the risk of being seen as something less than a full member of the EU single market. Ireland’s competitors for foreign direct investment would love this. Practically it would be messy; measures could probably ease the flow of trade from big companies, but checks are checks and they have an economic cost. Ireland should not countenance this “ solution”.

Of course there is another way forward – a united Ireland following a border poll, all inside the EU single market. And if the current drama does develop into a serious crisis, then it can only add to the political push for a poll to happen, even if a lot of the groundwork for reunification remains unfinished.

Perhaps this will all settle for now if some kind of UK/EU deal can be done – and the EU has offered more than the UK will have expected. Let’s hope so. But you wouldn’t bet on it. The Pandora’s box opened by Brexit is not going to shut any time soon.

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