Thursday 27 October 2016

Let's end wishful thinking and look at the hard facts

Brexit and a normal relationship between Britain and Ireland is simply not possible, writes Colm McCarthy

Published 25/09/2016 | 02:30

Gamble: Boris Johnson, one of the Brexiteers hoping for a clean exit from the EU. Photo: Reuters
Gamble: Boris Johnson, one of the Brexiteers hoping for a clean exit from the EU. Photo: Reuters

The UK Government is likely to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sooner than had been expected, in the first months of 2017, according to last Thursday's remarks from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. EU Council President Donald Tusk indicated last week that this was also Theresa May's timetable, only to be corrected by the UK prime minister. The Three Brexiteers in the UK Cabinet (Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis) have been jointly charged with executing Brexit. While the division of responsibilities is unclear, all three appear to contemplate not just an accelerated timetable but also a clean exit from the single market and the customs union. The prime minister's office has been briefing disguised rebukes (Theresa May was a Remainer) but it is becoming clear that there will be no back-tracking and there could well be a 'hard' Brexit. The Tory party will do whatever it takes to avoid a split. If that means a harder Brexit than common sense dictates, that may well happen.

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There has been much wishful thinking in this country suggesting Britain's EU exit can somehow be executed without costly changes for Ireland. The fact that some of this wishful thinking has been endorsed by British politicians lends comforting credibility - Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire reiterated in a recent newspaper article his belief that border changes can be avoided. But it is becoming difficult to see how an open border with Northern Ireland can be retained no matter how much Irish and UK politicians might desire this outcome. Their realism, not their sincerity, is in question.

Last Wednesday, any Romanian citizen keen to make a new life in London could have caught Ryanair's flight FR 1006 from Bucharest around midday for Stansted Airport, requiring just a current Romanian passport. There is no need for residence permits, work permits, job offers, or any paperwork at all, even though neither Britain nor Romania are members of the Schengen group of continental EU countries. If they were in Schengen, travellers would not even need a passport.

Alternatively, the would-be emigrant could have waited 90 minutes and taken the Ryanair Dublin flight, needing again just a current Romanian passport. This is the European Union's free movement in action and the British electorate have voted to bring it to an early end. 'Taking Back Control', the slogan of the Brexiteers, means taking back control of immigration from elsewhere in the European Union. It is politically inconceivable that the British government will leave the EU and continue with free movement. The free movement that principally concerns British voters is free movement from Eastern Europe.

There has always been free movement between Ireland and the UK, hence the open border with Northern Ireland. If the UK intends to control entry from elsewhere in the EU, but not from Ireland, how precisely is our would-be Romanian migrant to be prevented, and that is the intention, from hopping on one of the frequent buses at Dublin airport, to be transported at a cost of €8 to the Promised Land an hour later? There will have to be visa controls somewhere, at Dublin Airport, at the border between Dundalk and Newry, or Northern Ireland becomes detached from the UK with visa controls between the two islands.

Visa controls on entry to the Republic would solve the problem. Our imagined Romanian friend would have to establish entitlement to enter the UK before admission to Ireland. But any such process would have to apply to flights from all EU origins and to citizens of all EU members, or Ireland sacrifices free movement with the rest of the EU. This means that holidaymakers from France or Germany would need UK-compatible paperwork in order to visit Ireland, even if they had no intention of including the UK on their itinerary. This is a nightmare for airlines, airports and the Irish tourism industry.

If the Northern Ireland border is to stay open, the other option is to introduce passport (and visa) controls within the United Kingdom, on travel between Northern Ireland and the island of Britain. This would be hugely disruptive: just as the nationalist community values easy links to the Republic, the unionist folk value easy links to Britain, especially to Scotland. Without visas, residence permits or job offers. Immigration controls at Stranraer ferry terminal are not top of very many wish-lists.

There may have to be customs controls too, either on the Irish land border or between the two islands. The Brexiteers have been hinting at an early exit not just from the single market but also from the customs union. There appears to be a belief that Britain can take to the high seas and trade with the whole wide world, freed from the confines of declining Europe and the drudgery of dealing with its pesky neighbours. Boris Johnson has even been hinting at easier visa rules for Australians in the expectation of a better bilateral trade deal with the antipodean powerhouse. He might like to note that the UK does five times more trade with Belgium alone than it does with Australia: a glance at a map would help explain why. In recent years Ireland has been almost as large a trading partner for the UK as China.

There is a tradition of conferring knighthoods on senior British civil servants late in their careers or on retirement. Sir Humphrey will be earning his gong over the next year or two. The education of the Cabinet ministers charged with executing Brexit is a daunting work-in-progress. Over 43 years of EU membership, the laws and processes of the union have become deeply embedded in the UK's legal and administrative system. There are no British laws about lots of things - they are enshrined in secondary legislation deriving from EU directives and will have to be replaced brick-by-brick. Lawyers in London expert in these matters (yes, they will clean up) are estimating that it could take a decade, or even longer, to get the omelette unscrambled.

There are more immediate concerns. One strategy popular with 'hard' Brexiteers is to eschew any special new deal with the EU and to rely instead on the default trade rules of the WTO, the World Trade Organisation, to which most countries in the world belong. The European Union is a member and any EU country can trade, with low default tariffs, outside Europe with other WTO members. The trouble with this escape hatch is that it could snap shut very quickly: some trade experts believe that Britain would have to become a WTO member from scratch in its own right, requiring endless further negotiations.

It is clear that the referendum decision was, for the British political establishment, a gamble that went wrong. The public voted against continuing in the European Union, the government intends to deliver on this, but nobody had bothered to figure out what the public voted to embrace instead.

It looks as if the outcome of EU exit combined with an unchanged relationship between Britain and Ireland is simply not possible.

One can only wish the redoubtable Sir Humphrey the best of British in his unwelcome assignment.

Sunday Independent

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