Stephen Collins: Dublin may have to compromise on Border
Government’s EU-backed approach to date correct but not without risk of chaos
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator: there is danger the tough line of support for Ireland could leave us badly off if the Brexit talks go wrong. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Michel Barnier’s visit to the Border region this week demonstrated the remarkable solidarity being shown to Ireland by the rest of the European Union. There is a danger, though, that the tough line being taken in support of the Irish position could ultimately leave us in the worst of all possible worlds if the Brexit talks go wrong.
The conundrum facing the Irish Government as the talks enter a crunch phase is that the support we asked for, and received, from Brussels in opposing a hard border could trigger a disorderly exit by the United Kingdom. That would hit this country harder than any other member state.
This is the real paradox at the heart of the Irish position: our EU partners have given us all that we asked for but the risks for us if the strategy doesn’t work are far higher than for anybody else.
That said the Government could hardly have approached the negotiations any differently. The casual disregard shown by the British for the people of Ireland, North and South, in taking the decision to leave the EU without any consideration of the implications for this island gave the Government in Dublin little choice.
The complacency of the British was not confined to the decision to leave the EU without any consideration for its impact on the Belfast Agreement or the economy on both parts of the island. It was followed in the aftermath of the referendum by an assumption that the Irish Government would act as an advocate for a softly, softly approach by the EU to the UK because we stand to lose so much from a hard Brexit.
This was never going to happen because Ireland, as a committed member of the EU, and one which has benefited hugely in the process, could never be a party to undermining it on Brexit. As Irish commissioner Phil Hogan put it early on: “Ireland is on team EU not team UK.”
In any case as it became clear in the wake of the referendum result that the British had no idea about what they wanted from the Brexit process, apart from having their cake and eating it, Ireland had no choice but to defend its own interests in as forcible a fashion as possible.
Barnier hinted at possible compromises, pointing out there already are all-island phytosanitary, veterinary and food safety rules to which no one objects
The Government and its diplomatic service did an amazing job in securing support for the Irish position on the Border from all of the other member states. We were also extremely lucky that Barnier was chosen as the EU chief negotiator. From his previous experience as commissioner for the regions, he knows all about the Border and its problems, as he demonstrated during his visit to the area in recent days.
More importantly, Barnier has proved to be a superb negotiator on behalf of the EU, displaying a comprehensive grasp of the issues while remaining firm and polite in the face of British bluster.
The crunch issue in the next few weeks is finding agreement on the wording of the backstop arrangement on the Border which the British agreed in principle last December.
The backstop provides that if there is no agreement on a trade deal between the EU and the UK, regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic will continue. The problem is finding agreement on how that can work.
The British government and the Democratic Unionist Party on whom it depends for survival are adamant that Northern Ireland cannot remain part of the EU customs union if and when the rest of the UK leaves that arrangement.
In his visit to the North this week, Barnier hinted at possible compromises, pointing out there already are all-island phytosanitary, veterinary and food safety rules to which no one objects.
The really desirable outcome is that the backstop won’t ever be needed if the British conclude an exit deal that involves some form of customs arrangement or partnership with the EU
“We have no intention of questioning the UK’s constitutional order. That is none of our business,” he said. But he pointedly added: “The backstop is not there to change the UK’s red lines. It is there because of the UK’s red lines.”
So far the British have not come up with any satisfactory formula for the backstop and the real danger, as Phil Hogan pointed out in the Seanad last week, is that if there is no agreement on the backstop there will be no withdrawal agreement and no transition. The outcome of that will be chaos with disastrous consequences for both parts of the island.
Of course, the really desirable outcome is that the backstop won’t ever be needed if the British conclude an exit deal that involves some form of customs arrangement or partnership with the EU.
Given the vote in the House of Lords this week, there does appear to be a real prospect of the British parliament ultimately forcing the government to conclude some form of acceptable customs deal but there is no guarantee that will happen. Given the unstable nature of British politics, anything from the best- to the worst-case scenario is possible.
That means that the backstop is really important. It will be a test of political skill on the part of the EU and the British to find an acceptable formula but may also require the Government in Dublin to settle for a compromise that could be portrayed as a climbdown from the tough line it has taken to date.