The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is the key issue at the talks on Brexit. An absence of Ireland’s only land border is its most amazing feature. The winding and twisting border of nearly 499 km long is not marked by pillars or barriers; there is no barbed wire or checkpoints. After the 2016 referendum on the withdrawal of Great Britain from the EU, the border issue moved to the fore in the relations between the UK and Ireland.
When the UK leaves the European Union, the counties on both sides of the twisting border will become the frontier of the EU which will increase, at least theoretically, the possibility of political and economic crises and deeper conflicts in both countries.
It should be said that the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 (the agreement on political settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland that envisaged autonomous bodies of power) created the “transparent border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as one of the agreement’s key elements.
In the referendum of 2016, nearly 56% of the population of Northern Ireland voted “remain yet there was no agreement in its government: Sinn Féin, in the past the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), wanted to remain while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), its coalition partner that represented the interests of the Protestants, spent nearly half a million pounds to support the “Brexiteers.”
In Ireland, the border is a highly sensitive political, security and diplomatic issue. This explains why the politicians of the United Kingdom and the European Union assert, at least verbally, that regardless of Brexit variants there should not be any attempt to set up customs control at the border to say nothing about additional infrastructure.
The fairly contradictory principle of last resort, the so-called backstop, is the main bone of contention between London and Brussels. What is it all about? It is a measure needed to preserve the status quo, viz. the functioning border on the Emerald Isle. According to it, Great Britain will be guided by the rules of the EU Customs Union (EUCU) and that certain rules of the Common Market will be applied in Northern Ireland until the sides reach an agreement on the mechanism of ensuring a seamless border. This plan will be enacted if the UK and the EU fail to agree on the final variant of their trade agreement by the end of the transitory period or if it does not guarantee border transparency. Brussels insists that any Brexit deal should contain a backstop plan. The question is: When will it be needed?
As members of the Common Market and the Customs Union, the two states (Ireland and the United Kingdom) exchange goods and services with insignificant limitations: their products are not subjected to checks by customs or to mandatory standardization.
Brexit might change this algorithm: two parts of the Emerald Isle will find themselves in different customs and legal realities, which means that customs checks will become inevitable. As could be expected, both want to avoid the unwelcome scenario by signing a comprehensive trade agreement. However, Britain’s negotiates withdrawal both from the Common Market and EUCU, which means that the “Irish problem makes this deal an extremely different task.
Many Brexiteers support a technological solution of the border issue yet neither London nor Brussels has any ideas of how this know-how should be realized.
Indeed, what should be done if a consensus on the trade deal or technological solution is not enough? According to the currently accepted project, the backstop will be realized: Northern Ireland will continue living according to the rules of the EU Common Market. This means that the goods brought to Northern Ireland from all other parts of the UK should be checked according to the rules and norms established in the European Union.
The agreement envisages a temporary single customs territory so that the UK will remain tied to the EU Customs Union indefinitely long, unless and until the sides arrive at a mutually acceptable solution. Why are there so many disagreements?
In November 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her Cabinet endorsed the deal the United Kingdom and the EU had agreed upon with the “infamous Irish backstop as its inevitable part. This statement stirred up a lot of indignation in Parliament. Some of the ministers from the same Conservative party resigned from the Cabinet to demonstrate that they disagreed with the prime minister. They feared that the backstop might be used against their country; that it might make it a hostage or even a vassal (a more apt term) of the EUCU. In this case, the UK will be deprived of the right to sign trade agreements with third countries.
Some MPs deemed it necessary to specify that the backstop would be allowed or acceptable either within strict temporary limits or if the UK acquired the right of unilateral withdrawal.
In March 2019, the EU and the United Kingdom tried to discuss certain legal aspects of the backstop to arrive at a common interpretation of the concept and specify the project’s main provisions. The document explained how the UK would resolve “official disagreements with the EU in the legal field if Brussels tried to tie the Kingdom to the backstop conditions forever.
The document specified that the EU was resolved together with Great Britain to look for a technological solution of the border issue; this point was actively supported by the Brexiteers. It was expected that these conditions would help Theresa May pass the Brexit agreement through Parliament, but it did not happen. Geoffrey Cox, Attorney General in the May Cabinet, issued a verdict that “the legal risks for Great Britain are still high. He added that if trade agreement between the EU and Great Britain proved impossible because of “irreconcilable contradictions the government would have no “internationally recognized legal instruments to push the backstop plan aside unilaterally, that is, without Brussels approval.
In his first speech to Parliament in his new capacity, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “No country that values its independence and indeed its self-respect could agree to a Treaty which signed away our economic independence and self-government as this backstop does. He declared that this plan should be removed from the project of the future agreement as “undemocratic and “sowing discord. Today, he is steering the country toward a “no-deal Brexit” that, in his opinion, looks preferable to the backstop plan.
The government of Ireland, in its turn, insists that a no-deal Brexit will damage the Irish economy. Early in 2018, the first fundamental study of this side of the Brexit revealed fact that its realization would slow down Ireland’s economic growth by 7% in the next ten years as opposed to what could happen under Brexit.
In June, Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said that a “disorderly Brexit” could cost 55,000 Irish jobs within two years and a further 30,000 over the longer term. His summer economic statement pointed out that a no-deal Brexit would “seriously undermine bilateral trade ties between Ireland and Great Britain. He did not forecast a recession but suggested that growth would be close to zero in 2020 if there were no deal.
It should be taken into account that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are big trade partners. A hard Brexit will destroy trade ties with import tariffs and other measures that regulate trade. A sober look at the state of affairs, however, reveals that the UK is not Ireland’s biggest export market and has not been for years. The US is actually the largest external market with 27% of all goods exported in 2017. But the UK is number two – in 2017, 12% of Ireland’s exports worth 16.5bn were sold to the UK.
The exported goods belong to various sectors of economy: Ireland supplies the British market with about one-fifth of its food and agricultural exports. Red meat producers are particularly vulnerable – about 50% of Ireland’s beef exports are sold to the UK.
These food exports would face tariffs and increased competition in the UK market in the event of no-deal Brexit. In this case, these groups of Irish products will be confronted with tariffs and increased competition of third countries.
Exports don’t tell the whole story of the UK’s importance to Irish trade. Every year, around 18bn euros of Irish goods pass through the UK on the way to other EU markets. This route, via the UK road and ports network, is known as the “land bridge. It is particularly important for high-value or time-sensitive goods because it offers significantly faster transit time than alternative sea routes
The “land bridge from Dublin to Calais takes approximately 20 hours, while ferry services from Ireland to the continental EU can take twice as long. Ireland will be seeking priority for its lorries as they arrive in the EU, but it is difficult to see how they would avoid delays on the English side. A new plan for ferry services between Ireland and the EU has been developed, but it is still not the best option for time-sensitive goods.
The Irish government has been preparing for a no-deal Brexit for a long time. It has been running roadshows for businesses, often led by cabinet ministers, since September 2018. Grants of up to 5,000 have been made available for businesses to pay for professional advice and a 300m Brexit loan scheme has been created.
There is also the prospect of substantial EU support for Ireland to mitigate no-deal impacts: the Irish government has set up a 100m fund to help beef farmers who will experience difficulties as a result of Brexit. No-deal Brexit legislation was passed in February, creating continuity in areas such as pensions and benefits, cross-border rail services and the all-island single electricity market. An additional 400 customs officers were due to be trained and in place by the end of March, with a further 200 in place by the end of this year.
The Irish government, however, has not been clear about a very important point. In its recent so-called extreme plan, the government has warned that no-deal would mean that cross-border trade with Northern Ireland could not be as frictionless as it is today. It concedes that new checks will be “necessary to preserve Ireland’s full participation in the Single Market and Customs Union. But it does not elaborate on where and how such checks would take place.
Many other serious problems might surface in Northern Ireland in case of a no-deal Brexit: social-economic tension will be inevitable while an appearance of a border will cause a lot of instability in the region.
Political confrontation will increase: some politicians will insist that Northern Ireland should be excluded from Brexit, others that it should be unified with the Republic of Ireland. The Sinn Féin leaders are talking about a referendum on unification of Ireland if a deal is not achieved.
Use of weapons in the region is another risk: we all know that, to a great extent, Irish nationalists are not aggressive because of an absence of a border. If it appears, the IRA might become more radical.