Tuesday, 10 October 2017

EU's Brexit position on Ireland is contradictory

Last month the government published its Brexit position paper on ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland’ (by which it meant the Irish Republic). It was hardly a scintillating document, but at least it tried to imagine how a ‘seamless and frictionless’ border might work in practice.

In response, the EU Commission issued a set of truculent and unhelpful ‘Guiding principles for the dialogue on Ireland / Northern Ireland’. Like the British paper, it filled a great deal of space referencing the Good Friday Agreement and emphasised the importance of the peace process, but it pointedly refused to ‘put forward solutions for the Irish border’. ‘The onus to propose solutions’, it said, lies squarely with the UK.

What the commission didn’t say directly, but its negotiator Michel Barnier acknowledged in a press conference, was that the UK did propose solutions, which the EU rejected out of hand. The British paper made it clear that the government sees no need for a so-called ‘hard border’ from its perspective, and that attitude makes a lot of sense.

If the UK hopes to trade freely across the world after Brexit, there are persuasive arguments for dismantling barriers to commerce as comprehensively as possible. That’s before we consider the political sensitivities around placing customs posts and other checkpoints at the Irish border.

Whatever Mr Barnier might claim, the government is responsible only for arrangements on its side of the border. If the EU insists that elaborate infrastructure is needed in the Republic of Ireland, to protect the customs union or the single market, then that is its responsibility. Brexit supporters will point to another example of the type of bureaucratic inflexibility that justified the ‘leave’ campaign in the first place.

Of course, the two sides are engaged in a negotiation and the two papers on Ireland can’t be untangled easily from the broader strategies that both the UK and the EU 27 are pursuing.

Britain’s document was a rather clever attempt to pin responsibility for any hard border on Brussels as early as it could. If there are customs checks and physical barriers, it will be thanks to the EU rather than the UK, is the implied message. The commission’s ‘guiding principles’ try to refute that suggestion, but a lack of counter-proposals mean that its argument is less convincing.

There are probably other factors influencing the stroppy tone of Brussels’ document too.

Its negotiators are desperate to force the UK to accept a substantial bill, as part of the process of leaving the EU. Depending upon whose interpretation you accept, this is either a settling up of accounts to which Britain was previously committed, or a punitive and unreasonable bribe.        

In an attempt to strengthen their position, EU negotiators have insisted that they will not discuss a possible post-Brexit trade deal until the UK promises to pay. And although the Northern Ireland peace process is supposed to stand above this haggling over cash, most of the issues around the border are connected intimately with customs and commerce. Brussels is not prepared to resolve the more practical problems presented by Ireland, until the talks move on to a trade deal, but it doesn’t wish to say this outright.

The EU’s vague references to a “unique solution” for the island are calculated to sound like the “special status” within the European Union that nationalists have been demanding for Northern Ireland. Usually, this status is described as a way of keeping the province inside the single market and the customs union, by completing border checks on routes between Northern Ireland and Britain, rather than Northern Ireland and the Republic.

If the EU is alluding to that type of arrangement, which is flagrantly unacceptable to unionists, it could be chiefly a manoeuvre, designed to persuade Britain to accept preconditions around trade negotiations. It may also be a way of expressing solidarity with the Dublin government, which has responded to Brexit by reopening the ‘national question’ rather than addressing practical threats confronting the Republic’s economy.

If the “unique solution” is actually a genuine bid to pick apart the UK’s mandate to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland within the single market, it’s a spectacularly ill-conceived and irresponsible strategy. A power-grab that might put trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, in order to prioritise a closer relationship with the Republic, would obliterate the constitutional settlement formalised through the Belfast Agreement.

Certainly, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, encouraged the idea that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union and the single market after Brexit, during his visit to Belfast this week. He even suggested that voters in the province could elect MEPs through the Republic of Ireland’s electoral system. Unless he is particularly badly informed about the peace process, he must know that this type of intervention is insensitive at best and at worst looks like an attempt to stoke separatism in the UK.

Next month, the EU 27 will meet in Brussels to decide whether there has been sufficient progress during the first tranche of negotiations to open talks on future trading arrangements. Perhaps, if the two sides come closer to agreeing about money, then their discussions on Ireland will start to flow more freely. For the time being, the EU has taken the contradictory position that the border is an issue for ‘phase 1’, yet it refuses to discuss any of the critical matters around trade or customs that are affected by ‘phase 2’.

It’s reasonable to urge the UK to be ‘flexible and imaginative’ about the Irish border, but the UK doesn’t have a responsibility to accommodate endless inflexibility and lack of imagination from the EU.

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