Like the mists rolling over the hills and mountains of County Fermanagh, the British Government’s proposals for the Irish border post-Brexit are rather wet, windy and amorphous. Nothing changes the fundamental truth that in March 2019 the 300 or so miles of winding boundary with about 300 crossing points via roads, railways, canals, rivers, streams, wild forests and farmers’ fields will become the European Union’s frontier with the rest of the world. It is at that point that the European Union’s customs union begins, as does its single market, the euro currency area and much else.
Never before in the history of Ireland has such a border existed on its soil. When Ireland was part (mostly unhappily) of the United Kingdom obviously all movements of people and goods were seamless. After independence nearly a century ago, provision was made for a single travel area, and the British and Irish economies were so closely intertwined there were few real barriers to trade. British and Irish currencies circulated side by side until 1978. Since the single market in goods and some services was established in 1992, the Irish border has ceased to have much significance for anyone beyond some diesel smugglers. Now it threatens to become a hard border not just between two friendly states but between the UK and the European Union, which are becoming much less chummy entities as the Brexit process drags on.
Much is made of the easy Norway-Sweden border, but both states are members of the single market but also the Schengen free travel area. Even so, there are controls and checks, and there would be many more if either country had the British phobia about migration.
The reason why the Irish border issue hasn’t been sorted out more than a year after the Brexit referendum is that it cannot logically be the same as it is now – frictionless and seamless. When the UK leaves the EU customs union, with or without transition arrangements, some mechanism will be necessary to certify origins, to ensure that goods imported into the UK cannot travel into the European Union, ie Ireland, without some notification of their origin and whether they conform to EU rules and have paid EU duties, and vice versa. Otherwise the EU’s common tariff barrier and the rest of the world cannot work. Modern technology and licences granted to trusted companies can help assist this, but the fact remains that some fresh bureaucracy, even if mostly digital in form, will be required, and human beings will be needed to police it.
Even if the customs union problem could be settled with countless ANPRs (automatic number plate recognition cameras) and CCTV posts, that still leaves the even more fraught issue of the free movement of people. There is nothing today to stop, say, a Lithuanian flying to Dublin, taking a train to Belfast and entering the UK.
According to the Department for Exiting the European Union, that seamless, frictionless formality-free travel across the Irish border will continue after 2019. Fine, but where does that leave the British wish to “take back control of our borders” and limit migration into Britain? The only conceivable way for it to work would be to introduce a continental-style system of registration of personal residence, visa and employment status, plus requiring people to carry ID papers on them. That is something the British have traditionally found highly offensive, and wouldn’t do much to deter illegal migration.
In other words, David Davis, Michel Barnier, the Irish cabinet and all the other clever people around the capitals of Europe have failed in their quest to make two plus two equal five. It is as if a team of mathematicians had promised to make two plus two equal five because that is what everyone agrees it should be – there is lots of goodwill behind the idea, it would make life a lot easier, and it would be much worse for peace in Ireland if two and two actually made four. Of course they could be locked in a room until the end of time and still not find a way to make two plus two equal five, because it can’t, and no amount of wrangling will make it happen.
It should, then, be highly alarming that on this issue, where there is genuine goodwill and common purpose for once, there is no sign of making the proposals add up – because it indicates very strongly that they cannot. In desperation the Irish, British and European authorities may resort to pretending that, so to speak, two plus two equals five, and hope for the best, but it will not be a sustainable arrangement. The Irish government’s idea of creating an economic border across the Irish Sea sounds promising, but again suffers from the logical problem of what to do at the Northern Ireland-Great Britain economic frontier, where the same problems would re-emerge. And that is discounting any political sensitivity about being seen to move towards a united Ireland.
As it happens a united Ireland would obviously dissolve the border issue, but would obviously provoke some different and more violent troubles.
Vital as the Irish border issue is for these islands, it has an even wider significance because it has to be substantially settled before the talks can move on to the even more complex and much more acrimonious issues about the broader trade agreement between the UK and the EU (and indeed the two are logically enmeshed). The British Government may as well face up to the fact that the talks will be nowhere near completed even by March 2019, let alone by the end of this year, which is really the sort of deadline that could help airlines, manufacturers, banks, farmers and other businesses make sensible plans. Hence the British Government’s position papers and pleas for a “transition” period; but we, and the EU, are entitled to ask of Theresa May and her ministers: transition to what?