The British government is keen for talks with the European Union to move on to future trade agreements. But, in a disturbing intervention, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has warned his government may use its veto in December’s EU summit. The reason is simple; he argues that the U.K. has made insufficient progress as regards the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
As Varadkar pointed out, British politicians have been calling for a referendum for 10 years. We’re 18 months on from the decision to leave the EU. And there’s still no real progress on the issue of the Irish border.
“We’ve been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won’t be any physical infrastructure, that we won’t go back to the borders of the past. We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one.”
A background problem is clearly one of trust. The EU’s negotiator, Michael Barnier, recently referred to the need for “real and sincere” progress in the talks. The fact he had to add the word “sincere” gives a sense of European frustration.
What’s The Problem?
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement finally brought an end to the Irish Troubles. The problem is, this agreement assumes membership of the EU, including no manned border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since 1998, the economy of Ireland as a whole has come to depend on freedom of movement. In April this year, Irish foreign minister Charles Flanagan claimed over 30,000 people cross the border every single day. Incredibly, it’s generally believed this is a conservative estimate.
Brexit means that Northern Ireland is leaving the EU. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will become the only land border between the United Kingdom as a whole and the European Union. We’re only 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, and there are real concerns that the economic and social upheaval could reignite the Troubles. Sir John Major, former Conservative Prime Minister of the U.K., made the point well.
“Uncertainties over border restrictions between Ulster and the Republic are a serious threat – to the UK, to the peace process, and for Ireland, North and South.”
This Issue Needs To Be Resolved Urgently
Disturbingly, the problem was barely touched upon during the U.K.’s referendum on membership of the European Union. Since then, British politicians have seemed largely disinterested in the issue. A position paper on the Irish border contained basic factual errors, even when describing the Good Friday Agreement itself. It assumed any issues could simply be resolved by technology, a position the British government maintains. The European Union wasn’t impressed.
An ex-EU official just laughed at me down the phone when I asked how they are going to sort out the Irish border. "People were laughing in the corridors" when they read the UK government's position paper on the Northern Ireland, they said.
— Adam Payne (@adampayne26) November 15, 2017
The U.K. government is focused on the issue of tariffs, but the real problem for the border is what are called non-tariff barriers. Let’s use the example of chlorinated chicken, which has strangely excited the British press.
The EU bans chlorinated chicken. Contrary to popular reports, this isn’t on health grounds. The issue is that chlorination of chicken is largely used to clean chickens that have been kept in less sanitary conditions, making them fit for eating. EU regulations require that the birds be kept in better conditions, and ban chlorination to prevent farmers trying to take a cheaper route. So far, so good.
Now let’s imagine that, post-Brexit, the U.K. wants to increase its trade with the United States. In order to encourage that, the U.K. agrees to allow the US to ship in cheaper chlorinated chicken. This would mean cheap imports flooded the market, and to protect British jobs the U.K. would likely have to deregulate on this issue too.
In this scenario, the regulatory divergence between the EU and the U.K. would mean that border would need to be manned, and shipments of chickens would need to be checked for any trace of chlorination. Either that, or suddenly the EU would be flooded with cheap British imports of chicken, undermining EU farmers.
It’s worth stressing that this is only one example. The point is that, every time British ministers refer to the U.K.’s desire to diverge from the EU’s regulatory framework, they add pressure to that border. This isn’t an example of European intransigence. It’s something the U.K. is doing to itself, and as a result it risks destabilizing the Peace Process.
What’s The Solution?
Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that Brexit means leaving the customs union and the single market, freeing Britain to strike its own trade deals. Given that context, there are no easy solutions. So far, the only practicable one that has been proposed is for Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and the single market. The border would effectively be moved to the Irish Channel.
Unfortunately, this too is a politically volatile option, risking creating a sense of distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.. That won’t sit well with the likes of the Democratic Union Party. Crucially, May’s government depend on the DUP’s support to get Brexit legislation through the House of Commons. As a result, the Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshore, has dismissed the idea.
“We will leave the EU in 2019 as one United Kingdom. We need to ensure that nothing is done that undermines the integrity of the UK single market. I find it difficult to imagine how Northern Ireland could somehow remain in while the rest of the country leaves. I find it impossible.”
The reality is that the U.K. has made no other proposals, beyond calling for the EU to be “imaginative” and “flexible.”
A Stumbling Block To The Negotiations
Recognizing the importance of the Peace Process, the EU insisted that it was one of three so-called “divorce issues” that needed to be agreed before talks with the U.K. could progress to future trade. The U.K. initially agreed to this scheduling, but since then has attempted to fight against it at every turn.
In December, representatives of the remaining 27 countries to make up the EU will decide whether or not talks can move on. Crucially, Varadkar has a veto, and he’s suggesting that he isn’t afraid to use it. The remarks were actually issued right before a breakfast meeting with May at the Gothenburg social summit in Sweden. No doubt that breakfast will be a very tense affair.
[Featured Image by Carl Court/Getty Images]