Brexit. Are you not fed up hearing about this catastrophe every time you turn on the news? I know I am. Hearing about the lack of progress being made and seeing Theresa May repeat herself in every interview is embarrassing to watch at this point. It only gets worse when you remember that we only have a few months to go until Britain departs from the European Union and there is still so much uncertainty about the future of Britain post-brexit.
Which is concerning don’t you think? Take the Irish border for example, the whole situation seems to be in a deadlock as both the UK and EU are trying to agree on a deal that avoids a ‘hard border.’ Something that neither side wants yet they are unable to come to an agreement so far. This has been one of the main dilemmas the government has been faced with in the negotiations and it needs to have a solution as quickly as possible.
If not, and we have no other option but to have a ‘hard border,’ then it is feared that tensions in Ireland will rise, to an extent, that hasn’t been seen since 1998. When the Good Friday Agreement was put in place, thus ending the 3 decade long ‘troubles.’ A period in Irish history that I doubt anyone would like to see returning.
So why is achieving a frictionless Irish border so important anyway? In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed, this became the fundamental roots in bringing the conflict known as the troubles to an end in Ireland which claimed the lives of over 3,500 people during the early 1970s up until 1998. The agreement removed all security checkpoints along the Irish border, which were constant targets for paramilitary groups during the troubles. Since both the north and the south were in the EU single market and customs union, this made the process in attaining that peace much easier since this had already removed the need for product standard checks, (source 1). With no clear future surrounding the border; anxiety has grown on the island. Fearing that a return of a hard border would also mean seeing the return of these checks. Thus undermining all of the progress the Good Friday Agreement has achieved. There is also the fear that a hard border would become a target for paramilitary groups.
A hard border wouldn’t just spark up old tensions but could also have an impact on the economy. In 2016, roughly ?4 billion in goods and services were exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. That’s around 35% of all of Northern Ireland’s exports if you exclude Great Britain in that equation. The hard border would also affect businesses who rely on a frictionless border to operate. Guinness, for example, makes approximately 13,000 border crossings a year. (source 2) Not to mention the 35,000, or so, people who cross the border for work everyday which would have a serious impact on them if the hard border is to return. It’s obvious, even for a blind man, that the frictionless border that Ireland has at the moment is a vital necessity. So you may be wondering to yourself why are the UK and the EU struggling to agree on a final solution to the border crisis?
The simplest reason is that they have different opinions on what should be in the deal. On hand, you have the EU who have stated that in order for there to be a frictionless border, Britain needs to stay in the customs union and the single market. While on the other hand, leaving both of these are in the UK’s current red lines, which brings the whole negotiations to a near halt. The EU has argued that it’s impossible for Britain to be able to have a soft border but not be apart of the customs union and the single market, describing it as fundamentally incompatible according to one BBC source (source 3).There have been suggestions of technology being used as a possibility. The EU have said that this would speed up the transition from the north and south however it wouldn’t be enough to remove the chance of border checkpoints being put in place. Even Theresa May has admitted that no country in the world has that kind of technology to accomplish this. With no sign of a deal being achieved any time soon it seems that the hard border is the only option. However there is a plan B if all else fails to prevent that outcome.
In December of 2017, it seemed that the situation would be resolved when the EU and the UK signed up to a backstop agreement, a kind of ‘safety net’ if you will, that would be able to maintain a free border in the event that no other deal can be struck by December 2020. This backstop would include staying in the customs union and the single market, but this would only be applied to Northern Ireland and not the rest of the UK which the Brexit chief negotiator, Michel Barnier has stated on numerous occasions. Although Theresa May is keen for the need of a backstop, not everyone shares her enthusiasm for this solution. Northern Ireland’s largest party the DUP (the Democratic Unionist Party), who helped support the Conservative party’s minority government, have expressed their disdain for this option. Mainly because it would create a border in the middle the Irish sea between the island of Ireland and the rest of Britain. This means that any goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK would need to be checked to see if they meet EU standards. In order to maintain this fragile alliance between the DUP and the Tories, Theresa May has refused the EUs backstop stating that it would threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK (source 5). Instead she proposed that the entire UK would temporally remain within the customs union after 2020 until an agreement can be made. Michel Barnier responded back saying it wasn’t much of a backstop because it had no mention of the issue surrounding the single market regulatory issues. The Irish Prime Minister has also stated that there is no possibility of the UK having a time limit included in the backstop. So, with no clear solution in sight what does that leave the government with?
Not much. Personally I can only see a handful options that the government has that can prevent a hard border. 1: stay in the customs union and single market. This would be the easiest way to avoid a hard border however it would anger the Brexit fanatics and the DUP who want Britain to be independent from all EU law. 2: Go through with the EU’s backstop proposal. However this would again anger the DUP and could possibly mean losing support for May’s minority government. 3: Extent the negotiations so the UK and the EU have more time to come up with a better solution. However, the EU have stated they will not renegotiate the deal which would make it difficult to solve the situation with this option. 4: don’t go through with Brexit. This option can be argued as being undemocratic since it goes against ‘the will of the British people’ in the 2016 referendum. However a 2% majority doesn’t sound like it’s the will of the people, but a divided kingdom and if we cannot come up with a solution to the border question by the deadline then I think not going through with Brexit is a better option than possibly threatening the stability of a country that has seen enough bloodshed in recent memory. Overall, all of these options are difficult to achieve since the final say will have to go through parliament which could send Theresa May back to square one if they vote out her solution. Thankfully both the EU and UK have agreed that there will be no hard border in the deal which does relieve some of the tensions. However time is running out and if the government wants to have a deal by the deadline then they need to come up with a solution relatively soon. With all the difficulties achieving a frictionless border, May has a lot of work ahead of her and only time will tell what that outcome will be. For the population, all we can do is observe the negotiations, voice our opinions hope it will turn out for the best.