You sometimes hear the British say that they can’t make progress on the border before getting to the second stage of talks. While superficially plausible, the claim strikes me as disingenuous: there are surely several things that they could say right now that would make a lot of difference. For example, they could pledge that
- The United Kingdom will remain in an equivalent of the customs union and the single market, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
- Northern Ireland will remain in an equivalent of the customs union and the single market, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
- They will change their red lines regarding the nature of their exit from the EU and their future relationship with it, if that is required in order to avoid a hard border
As I think about it though, perhaps the key thing they should say is that (a) they accept that a customs union is defined as a group of countries surrounded by a common external tariff barrier and border; (b) that in addition, the European Single Market has always been and needs to be protected by an external border of some sort in order to maintain its product standards and so forth; (c) that they accept that Ireland will remain a full member of the EU, and hence of its customs union and single market; and (d) that there will therefore continue to be a border between Ireland and all third countries or regions not belonging to the European Single Market and a customs union with the EU.
None of these points is a matter of opinion, or subject to negotiation. (1) to (3) are a matter of fact or definition, and (4) is a logical consequence of (1)-(3). And it is very difficult to accept that you are negotiating with someone in good faith if they refuse to accept that black is not white and that 2 + 2 = 4. Right now the UK seems to most outsiders to be talking out of both corners of its mouth, claiming it doesn’t want an Irish border, while preparing to do things that will require one. How can you negotiate seriously with such a country?
If the UK were to accept (1) through (4), publicly, then its claim to want to avoid a hard border in Ireland — including any physical infrastructure, something that Mrs May very helpfully added in Florence — would sound rather different. (Right now, it sounds like hypocritical posturing.) Publicly accepting (1) through (4), and saying that they were willing to do whatever it takes to avoid a hard border, involving any sort of physical infrastructure, would mark a big step forward in my opinion. And it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for.