The border which nobody wants

Ar first glance, it seems utterly bizarre. We don’t want to build a hard border fence between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and neither do the Irish or the EU. No one wants it but it may nonetheless have to be erected.

The reasons lie with the UK’s change in status. If it leaves not only the EU but also the European Economic Area, it becomes a Third Country. The EU does not permit goods to be transferred across its borders without the necessary customs clearance and the fact that we are going to maintain regulatory convergence with the EU up to Brexit day makes not one iota of difference.

But couldn’t we just agree to treat Ireland differently? In this instance, the rules of the World Trade Organisation wouldn’t allow it. Discrimination in trading arrangements that favour one country over another without any formal trade deal is not permitted – and we can’t strike a bilateral trade deal with the Irish Republic as it has no freedom to negotiate such deals, being a member of the EU. After all, this desire to regain control of trade policy was one of the reasons why we voted to leave.

So it is no surprise that Mrs May came away empty handed from her meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday. It is hard to read between the lines and fathom out what really went on. Did she really consider a deal which would have seen Northern Ireland end up with separate trading arrangements from the rest of the UK?  Such an arrangement would compromise the constitutional integrity of the UK and thus was never going to be acceptable to the Unionist community in the Province. “Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” insisted Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.

On the other hand, the Dublin government insists that EU regulations on issues such as food safety and animal welfare must be maintained in Northern Ireland, to avoid damaging cross-border trade once Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union.  However, to repeat, mutual recognition of standards cannot be agreed without a formal trade arrangement and that isn’t going to be on the table any time soon.

Parliament’s Exiting the European Union Committee published a report which  was decidedly pessimistic about the  prospects of a deal given Mrs May’s insistence that we will be leaving the Single Market. “The Committee does not see how it will be possible to reconcile there being no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with the Government’s policy of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.”

Quite why the Customs Union has to be dragged into this debate is anyone’s guess. There are seamless borders between non-EU Norway and EU member states Sweden and Finland. This is everything to do with the Single Market but nothing at all to do with the Customs Union, of which Norway is not part.

There can be no doubt about the concern felt in the Irish Republic about the prospect of “no deal”. Comparing the UK to EU-27 as a whole, our country could well end up facing the greater problems in the short term. Some individual countries would not suffer that badly either. Germany, for example, would soon shrug off any decline in trade with one of its major export markets and find others. For the Irish Republic, however, the effect of “no deal” would be devastating. We are the second largest importer of Irish goods and services after the USA, receiving 13% of total Irish exports. We are also the biggest exporter to Ireland, with a 24% share of Irish imports.

Given these figures, you would expect the Irish government to be among the most dovish of EU27. Unfortunately, according to Anthony Coughlan, this is far from being the case. In an e-mail to Edward Spalton, our Chairman, he wrote:

The members of the political Establishment in the Republic of Ireland, dominated as they are by career Euro-federalists, hope fervently that the whole Brexit project can be aborted or made effectively meaningless by doing everything they can to obstruct the EU/UK negotiations and by interacting privately with those cross-party interests that are seeking to test Brexit to destruction in Parliament. Irish policy-makers are doing everything they can these days to encourage this end, egged on by the Brussels people –  while not saying so publicly of course.”

He went on to claim that there was some collusion between Irish Euro-federalists and UK remainiacs: “I have not the least doubt that  key Irish/EU grandees such as Peter Sutherland, John Bruton, Pat Cox  and Alan Dukes are interacting at present with the likes of  Peter Mandelson, Keir Starmer, Tom Tugendhat et al to do all they can to frustrate Brexit in Parliament and that they are being encouraged by Messrs Barnier, Juncker and the Brussels people to do this, with the full support of the Irish Government and Opposition behind the scenes.”

Some eagle-eyed readers will remember that Peter Sutherland, a former European Commissioner, was the person who told the House of Lords that the EU should do its best to undermine the ethnic homogeneity of individual nations by increasing mass immigration. Anyone in this country who is formally associated with this contemptible individual is truly beyond the pale.

Given these serious allegations of troublemaking by Irish politicians, it is unsurprising that Mrs May has been sent a letter signed by a number of Tory MPs, economists and business leaders urging her to take a tough line with the EU, insist on a trade deal and walk away if the EU will not play ball. Add into this potent brew the firm and perfectly understandable stance of the DUP that every part of the UK must leave the EU on the same terms and it is unsurprising that David Davis has found himself having to work hard to find a solution to the impasse. His latest suggestion is that that the whole of the UK, and not just Northern Ireland, should retain regulatory “alignment” – not “convergence”  -with the EU.

Even before any discussion has taken place on what this actually means, however, an un-named EU official has effectively torpedoed the whole idea:-  “The UK will not have any say on the decisions taken in Brussels and will basically implement them without having any influence over them… it makes the UK kind of a regulatory ‘protectorate” of Brussels.‘” Any suggestion that such an abject surrender would be acceptable to the signatories of the letter to Mrs May – or the DUP for that matter – is plainly ridiculous.

It isn’t easy to separate the wood from the trees in the current flurry of activity, but it is looking highly unlikely that the Brexit negotiations will be moving on to the next stage (i.e., trade talks) after the critical European Council meeting later this month. The deadlock over the Irish border issue is raising the stakes higher by the day and it would be a brave man who would place any money on what the eventual outcome is likely to be.

Photo by Michael 1952

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  1. Jason BReply

    It has reached a deadlock crisis. I hope the DUP hold their ground. This could all well lead to a prime minister position challenge. If so, it could be a blessing in disguise in more than one way and a return to the drawing table. We will watch along with interest.

    • StevenReply

      With any luck, it will lead to Teresa Maybe’s resignation or a leadership challenge to her. She always was awful, has no leadership abilities whatsoever, is plainly well out of her depth and her tenure at the Home Office was a complete national disgrace (WORSE in some respects than even Jack Straw or David Blunkett!) Hopefully, the CONServative Party will wake-up and smell the coffee and get rid of her and NOT replace her with another Remainer such as the even more rubbish Amber Rudderless or Philip Hammond but with Jacob Rees-Mogg. He seems to be the only person in the party that CAN be trusted with Brexit.

      • Jason BReply

        More than one person have recently said to me they favour Jacob Rees Mogg. Only this morning a friend e-mailed to say “yes I think JRM is honest, just the pro UK prime minister we need. Who knows !

        I hope TM will go asap and a fresh start with a brand new cabinet for Brexit is what we want to commence on a far better arrangement. It is interesting times, we may look back to see that the DUP have saved our bacon. I actually think they are the most principled party we have.. Keep watching things along.


        • StevenReply

          Yes, we need a new PM and a new cabinet. Having someone like JRM as PM and other cabinet members like him who have always (to my knowledge) been in favour of Brexit instead of being in favour of remaining like May or sitting on the fence should improve our negociations. I think part of the problem has been that the other EU countries and the EU Commission think they can try it on with us because they believe the British government isn’t serious about withdrawal and frankly when they see May and her cabinet who could possibly blame them for their attitudes?

    • StevenReply

      I think he is about the only potential Tory PM who could do that particularly if he were to take action on immigration. Labour’s weak point has always been that issue and any remotely competent Tory PM who wants to win an election makes sure the electorate knows it and provides a strong contrast in policy terms. It plays well with working-class voters especially.

  2. David LonsdaleReply

    Very good article by Martin Howe QC on the implications of ‘alignment, to be found on Brexit Central’ and another by Gisela Stuart on Guido.

  3. Phil JonesReply

    No EFTA. The worst of all worlds. UK trade agreements with third countries following EU regulations, and with free movement and no say on what goes on in the EU. A nightmare. Don’t think it’s being considered by May since most of us would consider it to put the UK in a worse position than now — just changing the UK from an EU province to an EU quasi-province — and May knows it.

    I too think Jacob Rees-Mogg would be the best replacement for May. Everything I’ve read on JRM points to him wanting a true Brexit — which is what I thought the majority voted for, i.e. the UK returning to be an independent self-governing country no more tied to the EU than are the US, Peru, Nigeria, Russia, China or any other third country.. A trading agreement similar to Canada’s CETA would be fine — but with services added. EFTA with a CETA-type agreement for the UK would have the UK following EU-set regulations rather than UK-set regulations. No way.

  4. Phil JonesReply

    As far as the Eire-NI border, the only way I see it being resolved is a referendum of the people of NI. They should be asked whether they want NI to remain part of the UK or become part of Eire. There is no middle ground. It’s the ultimate example of nationalism v economics. You give up on one of the two to gain/retain the other. The Good Friday Agreement was one of two roadblocks (the other being Devolution of Wales and Scotland) that the wonderful Tony Blair implemented to try and stop the UK ever leaving the EU and regaining its independence. Blair was Machiavellian. What compromise is possible?. You either say black is white (Mrs. May’s current view) or you call it like it is. What pair of adjacent countries do not have a ‘hard border’? The closest I’ve seen is the US and Canada. They and Mexico presently have (although perhaps not much longer) the North America Free Trade Agreement. But still they have borders where the rear of trucks are randomly opened and searched. And persons can’t simply walk legally across their borders. To allow people to freely cross your border means you are not a country (by definition), i.e. the case for the UK, France, Florida, British Columbia, New South Wales at present. To be a country you need to have defined borders. So the UK either has to put a hard border between Eire and NI or between NI and Great Britain; if the latter, then NI is no longer a part of the UK.

  5. Gordon WebsterReply

    Few people know about Mr Sutherland, and his global communist attitude. Thankfully he is but one voice. Jacob Rees-Mogg gave them the perfect and simple answer to an Irish Border. We will not build one, but the Irish can if they wish – or if Brussels orders them to.
    I travelled quite often to NI during the troubles, and had to go through Special Branch checks every time I landed back in Glasgow. The use of a hard border is just more remain scaremongering.

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