World View: Belgium offers a way out of the Brexit impasse

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales could all have separate relationships with the EU similar to Flanders and Wallonia

As Ireland contemplates the effects of Brexit, discussion is turning to how the Border can be kept open and whether that will be compatible with European Union rules. Can a more flexible Ireland be matched by a more flexible Europe?

Northern Ireland's vote to remain in the EU fuels demands that the North should retain access to EU policies on labour migration, energy, agriculture and trade. But so too does the Government's case that the peace process makes Ireland's position unique and that Brexit would endanger it. The Belfast Agreement is legally embedded in an EU setting, notably in its Irish citizenship provisions.

From the UK's point of view there is a limit to the acceptability of such demands. To concede a separate deal for Northern Ireland with Brussels would endanger Westminster sovereignty, notwithstanding Theresa May's undertaking to involve the UK's three devolved territories in the Brexit negotiations.

Officials from each of them regard the UK's inter-governmental machinery for doing that as grossly inadequate. And the British-Irish Council which brings the Irish Government into the picture suffers from an unambitious agenda and from Westminster's reluctance to participate at the highest level. All this makes closer Irish research into, scrutiny of and, where possible, involvement in the UK's devolution debate necessary.


Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales all want to retain access to the EU single market, regional funding, trade, research and Erasmus policies, for example (as well as to retain existing levels of agricultural spending, if now from UK resources). That means accepting EU migration rights and external tariffs, both of which are unacceptable to hardline Brexiteers.

Independence question

Resentment of the English Brexit majority is increasing, leading in the Scottish case to demands to reopen the independence question. The SNP government has launched a consultation exercise, but it knows public opinion has not moved substantially enough to carry another referendum soon, given the economic and hard border difficulties with


. They are surely right to say Brexit is a major new condition, just as is the case in the North.

The internal and external sovereignty questions facing the UK are more and more linked by the Brexit crisis. Internally the constitutional mechanism used to determine the extent of devolution hinges on the powers “reserved” to Westminster.

Lifting the reserve on foreign policy would allow Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to deal directly with Brussels on competencies devolved to them already – or on those now vested in Brussels which will revert to them after Brexit. That would enable a variable geometry or differentiated relationship with the EU from the UK, partly reflecting the already differentiated pattern of devolution. Some observers say such a formula might be a strategic compromise to head off Scottish independence and a UK break-up.

Spanish objections

Seen from Brussels this would be a lot to swallow. Precedents like this set by the UK would further complicate an already tangled and obscure political structure, making for more fragmentation rather than solidarity. It would invite Spanish objections over


, even though a similar strategic compromise might satisfy the Catalans – and




already enjoys such a relationship with Brussels. But its deep federalism is inimical to Brexit sovereigntists.

Again and again the post-imperial nostalgia for regaining control that drives middle- class English nationalist support for Brexit rears its head. It demands constitutional attention and possible UK federal resolution, but lacks effective voice in the centralised Westminster regime.

In Hugo Young's phrase introducing his history of Britain in Europe, the country still struggles "to reconcile the past she could not forget with the future she could not avoid".

Flexible, variable geometry, reinforced cooperation or differentiated visions of the EU's future are being resurrected in what Jean-Claude Juncker described as being "at least in part, in an existential crisis" in his "State of the Union" speech to the European Parliament this week. He wants to see the principle applied to defence matters. Others talk of new cores around the euro, different tiers dividing that from the single market or concentric circles accommodating the UK, Turkey and Ukraine.

Juncker's plea echoes justified calls from scholars of the EU such as Tanja Börzel and Frank Schimmelfennig, think tanks such as Bruegel, political leaders such as Enda Kenny and Matteo Renzi and newspaper columnists such as Gideon Rachman for fresh ideas on flexible reforms to make the EU more legitimate with a more critical public.