As we get closer to the important EU Council meeting the amount of coverage on Brexit has increased significantly. Of course more noise does not necessarily equate to more content – there is a lot of uninformed opinion around.
There are some fundamental issues that need to be understood.
While we are talking about the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, we are also talking about a future external border of the EU. That means the issue of the Irish border is very important to the EU and our EU partners and all have the same objectives – to avoid a hard border. Thus, the negative commentary directed at Ireland by Brexiteers and the Brexiteer press, apart from being mostly factually wrong, is badly misdirected.
Of course the impact of a hard border would be felt more by Ireland than in any other Member State (you can find analysis on this here), but the nature of the border is a crucial determinant of the integrity of EU Customs Union and Single Market, and is thus of crucial importance to the EU. This latter point appears not be understood by everyone. To illustrate the significance of the EU external border, and the Irish border will be that post Brexit, it is useful to consider an example:
The UK wants to sign trade deals with other countries, which presumably will give other countries access to the UK market on different terms than are available in the EU. This is why the UK wants to leave the Customs Union. If the UK allows beef from a third country into the UK at a lower tariff than the EU would charge and/or subject to less regulation than applies in the EU (as part of a trade deal), then this beef could enter the EU if there is no hard border. Of course with lower tariffs in the UK than in the EU exporters would move their product through the UK (Northern Ireland) into the EU.
This would mean that the UK would effectively determine EU external trade policy. The EU will not allow such a situation to arise – and neither should Ireland as such a situation is likely to have significant negative impact on Irish businesses and consumers (remember the regulations are there to protect consumers).
This means that the apparent offer by the UK, that there will be no regulatory divergence at least for Northern Ireland, will not avoid the need for a hard border as the issue of different tariffs is not covered by that offer. A hard border will only be avoided if the UK, or at least Northern Ireland, stay in the Customs Union and there is no regulatory divergence – there is no way around this! An offer to avoid regulatory divergence is not enough to move to the next phase of the negotiations.
Even a special status for Northern Ireland, where the border runs through the Irish Sea and where UK authorities ensure that third country products do not end up in the EU market, is problematic as it would be difficult for the EU to enforce the proper policing of that border, given that it is located outside the EU in a sovereign country.
Another important point relates to opinions about the use of existing or yet to be invented technological solution to police the border. A lot of the legitimate routine trade is already processed electronically, and could easily continue to be processed that way. But that does not remove the need to check that what is being transported is what had been declared, and more importantly border checkpoints are there to stop illegal activity. It is hardly credible that criminals are going to be declaring their trade via an online system!? Importantly, once the UK is outside the Customs Union illegal activity will not only encompass the usual things like drug smuggling but will also encompass shipments where the tariffs and duties due in the EU have not been paid or where the goods do not meet EU regulatory requirements. In the event that the UK is outside the Customs Union (tariffs) and Single Market (regulations), Ireland is obliged to police this border adequately, which means physical checks.
This brings me to my next point. It would be very easy for the UK to guarantee that it will not introduce physical border checks, but given the arguments I put forward above, what the UK would needs to guarantee is that the EU will not need to put in physical border check in response to changes introduced by the UK in the wake of Brexit, namely deviations from regulations, tariffs and tariff-quotas.
Finally, there is talk about some form of words being found that would allow negotiations to progress to the next phase. Again given the facts, what is needed are very concrete undertakings that would be legally binding and would avoid the need for a hard border i.e. that the UK will not leave the Customs Union and there will be no regulatory divergence. Without such undertakings the negations should not proceed to phase two. Importantly, this is the point where Ireland holds all the cards, and it would be great mistake to settle for anything less than such an undertaking.