The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has responded to Theresa May’s Florence speech by saying it was a ‘genuine attempt to move things along’ and commending her request for a transition period as ‘a step in the right direction’. These were generous words, argues David Phinnemore (Queen’s University Belfast).
On the Irish dimension to Brexit – the focus of a dedicated ‘dialogue’ alongside the formal negotiations on a financial settlement and citizens’ rights and a matter on which ‘sufficient progress’ must be made before talks on a future trade agreement can begin – May was able to dedicate just four lines. Four lines that at best did no more than note the commitment to protecting the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement and the Common Travel Area and not accepting any physical infrastructure at the border.
May said nothing new that was positive
May said nothing new that was positive. It was as if through ignoring the Irish dimension, it might simply go away. The absence of engagement suggested once again an appalling failure to appreciate the challenges that Brexit poses for Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland as a whole and respond accordingly.
Michel Barnier’s has made it clear that he was unimpressed: ‘Today’s speech does not clarify how the UK intends to honour its special responsibility for the consequences of its withdrawal for Ireland’.
What did catch the eye was May’s statement on the border. Rather than the language of ‘seamless’ and ‘frictionless’ – problematic as it is – she simply stated that the UK government ‘will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border’. How then will the border be managed as the UK leaves the customs union and the Single Market? The absence of any detail or hint of a solution does nothing to assuage concerns that the UK government has no idea how to resolve the border issue.
Equally worrying was the assertion that the ‘no physical infrastructure at the border’ position is essentially the line of the Irish government and the EU ‘as a whole’. It clearly is not. They are both looking to ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’, language that May strikingly omitted to deploy. For the Irish government, the UK should remain in a customs union with the EU and in the Single Market. If that is not possible, then it has already shown a willingness to consider ideas of Special Economic Zone with Northern Ireland having its own distinctive access to the single market and the EU’s customs union.
Leo Varadkar and Theresa May, (gov.uk), Open Government Licence v3.0.
Perhaps we should not have anticipated any significant comment on the question of the Irish border and list of issues to be addressed as part of the Ireland/Northern Ireland dialogue in the Brexit negotiations. They were not flagged as ones that May would or should address in her Florence speech. She’s unlikely to address them in her speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester next month.
we should not have anticipated any significant discussion of the Irish dimension
When Varadkar meets his UK counterpart today he will no doubt be wondering when May will begin to address the Irish dimension to Brexit with the imagination and flexibility that is called for. He’s already stated that he does not think that May has said enough to allow the EU-27 to move to the second phase of the withdrawal negotiations. The near silence of May’s Florence speech on Ireland and Northern Ireland means that he will not be alone.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.
David Phinnemore is Professor of European Politics in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.
Is there some taboo about stating the obvious?
The UK is leaving the Customs Union; cutting off Northern Ireland from the UK Customs Union would be absurd economically, politically and socially, and as such it would be a complete non-starter of a request even were the DUP not propping up May’s government. There will be no physical infrastructure on the border. If the UK changes its product standards then goods that do not comply with EU standards will nevertheless enter the Single Market via this porous and indefensible border.
The compromise solution is plainly to have zero tariffs for UK-EU trade and for the UK to continue to share EU product regulations in return for an equitable role in making them, via some new mechanism. Then there’s just rules-of-origin checks to worry about, which is a minor and manageable problem.
I think the ‘some new mechanism’ might be a sticking point, for some. I assume May’s allusion in her Florence speech to trade regulations and deals post Brexit being decided by some new co ordinating group working outside of and above both the EU and UK judiciaries was probably flagging the development of a supranational body to create such new trade mechanisms. The EU repeal Bill will give the DUP/May government powers that could and well might just shut down both the high courts and elections and even parliament if they proved to be a block in this new free trade route. The only problem one might have with this solution is that it is entirely anti-democratic.
Sure, some might find ‘some new mechanism’ a sticking point. I did describe it as ‘the compromise solution’. And it would be easy to just call the EU’s bluff by leaving the border unpoliced. Few British people care if EU-standard goods enter Britain tariff-free, and the EU could only mew impotently about the threat to the ‘integrity of the Single Market’. It would be yet another border they simply cannot police.
Whether or not some new mechanism is anti-democratic depends on what it might be, of course. If both the EU Parliament and Westminster get a veto on any new product regulation, say, then it might be acceptable.
The only feasible solutions, as indicated in the article, are for either the whole of the UK, or at the very least NI, to remain in the customs union. Nothing else cannot possibly lead to the stated goals of the UK and EU. If “Haohoa” thinks that the EU will simply ‘mewl’ he’s deeply misguided. There will be no UK deal unless the EU are satisfied with the solutions. And if there is no deal things will get much worse for the UK – what will be left of it after Scotland leaves.
The clearest sign that someone has no sensitivity for British politics is that they think that Brexit would entail Scottish independence. Running that a close second is the idea that putting Northern Ireland into a customs union with the Republic and not the UK would be any kind of solution.
The clearest sign that someone has no sensitivity for EU politics is that they think a customs union by itself would remove all purpose for customs checks. Running that a close second is the idea that in the event of no deal the EU would be able to persuade Ireland to put up customs barriers across the island. The EU may or may not ‘mew’, but they would be impotent to do anything about it. Deal or no deal, the border will be open, and British-standard goods rolling across it tariff-free.
If “Haohao” thinks there is no chance of Scottish independence, he obviously has absolutely no knowledge of the political landscape in Scotland. Such blinkered thinking is typical of Brexitists and “Empire II” enthusiasts. In a similar vein, also no understanding of both the EU and Ireland’s viewpoints.The idea that the EU will roll over to Brexitists demands is more typical delusional thinking.
Ho hum, I didn’t say there was no chance of Scottish independence, just that it would not be entailed by Brexit. If Scotland is to become independent in future then the arguments justifying it will probably look very different to those deployed in 2014, because Brexit rather spannered those.
Whether Britain capitulates, forms some kind of rule-shaping partnership with the EU on product regulation, or comes to no deal on the border at all, there will be no physical customs checks on that border. Even if by some strange course of events, Ireland decided to physically partition the island, it would take a long time to build and fortify the checkpoints. In the meantime, the building sites for these checkpoints would also require fortification. However, I do suggest the idea that Ireland will roll over to a Juncker demand to seal the border is more typical delusional thinking.