Tory push to ‘just get on’ with Brexit threatens Irish Border crisis
Cliff Taylor: Britain’s next PM may be willing to run the risks to the North of a no-deal exit
‘No way exists which combines the kind of Brexit which the DUP has supported with the absence of a trade border on the island.’ Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
We can’t go back to the “borders of the past” has been a constant political refrain on all sides in the Brexit debate. And we probably won’t, at least not in the way most people think of the old Irish Border, as a security checkpoint with watchtowers and soldiers. But a report published during the week points to what a border of the future might look like after Brexit, and that is none too pretty either. As Boris Johnson seemingly heads towards 10 Downing Street with a mandate from his party to “just get on with it”–as he put it in Friday’s BBC interview– the danger is that he is prepared to take the risks this involves.
There is simply no way around the border dilemma. If Northern Ireland leaves the EU trading bloc, then goods and animals need to be checked entering the Republic – as part of the EU single market. Speaking in Dublin this week, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson called on the Dublin Government to enter talks with the DUP to find a way forward.
But no way exists which combines the kind of Brexit which the DUP has supported with the absence of a trade Border on the island. A time-limit on the backstop would only be a fig-leaf covering over the real issues and would inevitably sets up risks and uncertainty for the future. Now the EU insists there will be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement and so the collision course is set, when the new UK prime minister heads to Brussels and starts banging the table about the backstop.
The latest report to set out the consequences of a no-deal for the Irish Border was published by the North’s Department of Economic Development and written by Michael Lux, who headed the European Commission’s directorate general for tax and customs for 25 years and Eric Pickett, a German lawyer specialising in customs, trade and WTO law. The department itself said its conclusions are a “sobering reflection” on the limited options available in relation to border trade in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
What is at issue here are the kind of controls which were in place at the Irish Border before the EU single market in 1993, when customs posts controlled the movement of goods. The report says that things could be done to reduce border checks and limit, to an extent, the cost to business. But there is simply no way to avoid physical checks to ensure customs rules are being met, food is safe and animals are not carrying any risk of disease.
The report jumps through all the legal hoops. The UK and EU could both act under a security clause in World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, refusing to erect border checks because they would create a security risk. However in typically lawyerly understatement, the authors point out that the EU side would be unlikely to agree to this as it would open up dangers including “smuggling, risks to the environment, risks to health”, particularly in heavily regulated fields such as pharmaceuticals and in food and animal safety.
These risks rise as UK rules diverge from EU ones, or products enter the UK from outside the EU and are being shipped on through the Irish Border. But full alignment of rules North and South – the essence of the backstop – is rejected by the DUP and, despite signing up to it, by the Conservatives. And the DUP also rejects checks on goods entering the North. And so we end up going around in the same circle we have been in for the last few years.
There are, of course, options which might be considered if a trade border does reappear to make life easier for businesses – such as special economic zones close to the Border allowing some freedom of movement within confined areas, and of course the use of technology to check movements of goods from larger operators with special authorisation. Special frontier zones might help local farmers and microbusinesses.
But if the North leaves the EU trading bloc, you still need checks and infrastructure – one proposal is to have a special back-to-back logistics centre, a large warehouse operating across the Border through which goods could be cleared. And the EU will insist that the Republic clears animals, foods and plants through specially equipped border inspection posts.
None of this is simple. The report takes four pages to assess the rules and possible simplifications of a food product moving from the North to the Republic for processing and then back to the UK for sale to consumers. The concept that a no-deal Brexit can be simply and relatively painlessly executed is completely shattered when you read this kind of stuff. If it is a no-deal, make no mistake, it will be chaos not only in relation to the Irish Border, but on a much wider scale, too.
As the debate heats up again heading towards the next deadline, we must presume the EU will hold firm on the text of the withdrawal agreement. Its central point is that the North must remain aligned to the rules of the EU customs union and single market, to avoid the need for border checks. This meets the Irish definition of no return to a hard Border, which is basically that things remain pretty much as they are.
However the risk now is that the next incumbent of 10 Downing Street may take a different interpretation of what a hard Border means – and be prepared to run the risks to peace in the North that a no-deal exit entails. On Friday, Johnson said the Irish Border problem could be solved by “maximum facilitation”– the nonsense phrase loved by Brexiteers to let on that technology can solve everything– and having the necessary checks conducted away from the Border itself. To pretend this solves the problem is nonsense, but Johnson clearly couldn’t care less.The push from the shires to “just get on with it” is deeply dangerous not only for Britain, but also for this island.