This blogpost was written on Nov 24th, 2017
The week opened with the UK cabinet agreeing that it would offer more money to the EU to settle its financial obligation triggered by its decision to leave but only on condition that the EU would agree to now move to talks about the future relationship and that the money would only be paid over when a trade deal was actually signed. This is an offer that, by Friday, even the ultra-Brexit supporting newspaper, the Telegraph, was admitting would be rejected by the EU.
The week closed with howls of rage from British politicians, often Brexit supporting, when the EU announced that UK cities were to be excluded from consideration from the prized European Capitals of Culture competition for 2023. An example of the EU punishing the UK, Brexiters argued, apparently ignorant of the rules that only cities from EU, EEA or applicant countries can be so nominated. Why would the EU subsidise cultural activities in a city in a country that had left the EU?
When you are thrown out of the culture club all you can say is: “Do you really want to hurt me, Do you really want to make me cry?”
The rage over the cities issue neatly captures a phenomenon that Chris Grey identifies in a blog post that “there is the strange sense from those who argue most vociferously for Brexit that, somehow, Brexit won’t change anything. For example, I’ve seen Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to the EU or that it could mean restrictions on air travel within the EU.” On air travel see this.
A phenomenon also captured in an article by Tony Barber in the Financial Times that “the clamour for special treatment is particularly loud in hard-pressed areas of England that voted heavily to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum.” For example, the seafood industry in Grimsby, which voted 70 per cent to 30 per cent for Brexit,
…fearing that competitors in French and German ports will gobble up its business, wants special free trade status after Brexit.
What might be described as wanting to have your fishcake and eat it.
But by far the biggest Brexit development of the week was the issue of the potential re-emergence of a border in Ireland moving centre stage in the negotiations and threatening to block them moving to phase two, talks about the future relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit.
There are three issues on the table in phase one of the Article 50 (A50) discussions: the rights of EU and UK citizens living in the UK and EU respectively; the financial obligations that the UK has signed up for as a member of the EU and which now must be honoured; and issues relating to the island of Ireland.
A major theme in the UK Brexit referendum was that leaving the EU would allow the UK to “take back control” of its borders. As of today, as a member of the EU, the UK has no borders with other EU countries. In fact it has no borders at all as there are no non-EU countries around it. After Brexit, depending on how Brexit is defined, with one exception, all of the UK’s borders with EU countries will be sea borders, the English Channel and the North Sea, for the most part.
The one exception is the island of Ireland, with its long, tortured and bitter history with the UK. History in Ireland is not the stuff of the past. History is modern day politics. Orange marches on the 12th of July, celebrating the victory of King Billy at the battle of the Boyne, still have the potential to trigger confrontation. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for close on a year because of a dispute over Irish language legislation.
Ireland became independent of the UK in 1922, close on a 100 years ago. It became a republic in 1949. But six counties, located in the Northeast of the island, because of a Protestant/Unionist majority in those counties, opted to remain with the UK. What the Irish refer to as “partition”. From 1922 onwards, when partition happened, the unionist majority in Northern Ireland systematically discriminated against the Catholic minority, something ignored by UK governments, both Conservative and Labour. It should be remembered that the official title of the Conservatives was the Conservative and Unionist Party.
The border between the two parts of the island was clear and visible, manned by security forces on both sides.
In the 1960s, inspired by the US civil rights movement, Northern Irish Catholics began their own civil rights movement, marking the beginning of the end of the Unionist state. But the violent reaction of the authorities in Northern Ireland to the civil rights movement gave birth to the Provisional IRA, the “Provos”, and years of terrorist violence followed, with atrocities being committed by all sides.
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 began the process of ending violence and returning a degree of normality to Northern Ireland through a governance process that involved representatives of both communities. But the deep divides between the two communities have not healed to this day. Like a sleeping volcano, anger and hurt stand ready to erupt at any time.
The hard border between the two parts of Ireland also began to disappear, helped enormously by the creation of the EU’s single market, building on the already existing customs union. The disappearance of trade borders because of regulatory harmonisation across the island facilitated the disappearance of security borders. EU membership has boosted the peace process is myriad other ways. See: Irish-ambassador-Daniel-Mulhall-Brexit/
In Ireland where, to borrow some words of Yeats, “peace comes dropping slow”, the decision by the UK government that Brexit means leaving not only the political structures of the EU but also the single market and the customs union puts all that has been achieved at risk. If Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, is outside the single market and the customs union then the return of a physical border is inevitable. The return of a border could awaken the sleeping volcano.
If the UK, post-Brexit, wants to diverge from EU standards, and it does, see here, then border controls is the only way the EU can ensure the integrity of goods imported into the EU through Northern Ireland. But make no mistake. It is the choice made by the UK government to quit the single market and the customs union that results in the border.
Ireland has made it clear that it will veto moving to phase two of the Brexit process is the UK does not offer written, bankable, guarantees that there will be no border. The UK responds that this is an issue to be dealt with in phase two when the trade relationship is discussed. But how can it be when the UK has already ruled out the only options that would prevent the need for a border? A bit like an employer saying that they will open pay negotiations with a union but only on the understanding that a pay increase is a priori ruled out.
As Chris Grey points out in his blog, Brexiters appear to suffer from a touch of cognitive dissonance, where the consequences of Brexit are either denied or blamed upon the EU, and not attributed to or accepted as resulting from the vote to leave, as in the Capitals of Culture furore.
Jarring reality can break the hold of cognitive dissonance. Such will be the case with an Irish veto on moving to Brexit talks phase two. The UK was never slow to use its veto during its years of EU membership when it felt potential decisions cuts across its national interests. It can scarcely complain when other countries do the same.
The veto will be used. To quote the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney: “We have been preparing effectively for that summit for months now to make sure that Ireland’s voice is heard in the context of our future as a member of the European Union, in the context of ensuring we do not have a border on the island of Ireland again.”
The UK made its Brexit choices. Now it must live with the consequences. If the talks break, it will be for the border.
Footnote: As I write this, the newspapers are awash with talk that the Irish government may fall, triggering fresh elections over who knew what and when as regards a police scandal. An election guarantees an Irish veto as no party is going to campaign as the one who would agree to allow the UK to re-impose a border in Ireland. No doubt the UK Brexit supporting newspapers will complain loudly that “Irish politics” are derailing Brexit, ironically ignorant of the fact that Brexit is little more than the playing out of UK politics.
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