Thursday 16 August 2018

UK finally wakes up to Border risks in the wake of Brexit fallout

British cabinet minister David Lidington with students at Hazelwood Integrated College in north Belfast. Photo: Press Eye/Darren Kidd
British cabinet minister David Lidington with students at Hazelwood Integrated College in north Belfast. Photo: Press Eye/Darren Kidd
John Downing

John Downing

A bit like the buses, you wait ages for one - then suddenly two arrive almost at once.

On Monday the UK's Brexit Minister David Davis showed up on the Border, and then yesterday it was the turn of another minister from London, David Lidington, who spent a chunk of the day meeting people in Dundalk and Newry, hearing in some detail about how a return of the Border could smash business.

The affable Mr Lidington has a long job title, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was good enough to say he is "Simon Coveney's opposite number", so just think deputy prime minister to the embattled Theresa May.

The presence of the pair suggests that London has suddenly but belatedly woken up to the realities of what will become the only land border between de facto UK jurisdiction and the European Union once Brexit happens in March of next year.

There is a definite change of tone from London - but the terms used by its politicians are not much altered.

Mr Lidington politely sketched things out yet again: the UK's departure from the EU includes leaving the customs union and single market. From the Brussels viewpoint, that means a "hard Border" and big changes to the terms of trade with a post-Brexit UK.

"We are working very energetically, with great determination, on making sure business does not face a hard Border," Mr Lidington told reporters in Newry.

So, London wants an EU-UK "customs agreement" after Brexit to avoid this hard Border. It would also avoid the loss of lucrative Irish-EU trade and commerce with the other member states.

So far, Brussels is not impressed by what London has to offer - and it is even less impressed with Theresa May's so-called "red lines". Mr Lidington tried to brush these aside, talking up how committed everyone was to negotiating.

And he was also sticking to the line from London that it may well take until October for the Irish Border issue to be resolved.

"I think we should aim to make specific progress by June," Mr Lidington said, indicating it will a job for October.

Countless observers, including the wily Bertie Ahern, a veteran of up 40 EU summits, some of which he chaired, has warned of the perils here.

Last Monday, while the UK Brexit minister was on his snap Border tour, Mr Ahern warned that a five-to-midnight October summit flurry could see Ireland pressured into caving in on the Border issue for the greater EU good. Better to have it sorted by the summit fixed for June 28 and 29 next.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Coveney has been putting about the June Border deal strongly again, after a slip by the Taoiseach last month when he suggested an October Border deal might do.

On Thursday last, Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan was on message with Dublin on the need for a Border deal in June and he laid it on the line for Mrs May.

"The deadline is set for June. No decision, no withdrawal treaty. No withdrawal treaty, no transition," the commissioner told Seanad Éireann.

Mr Hogan also took up the issue of UK red lines in the ongoing Brexit talks.

"There are so many red lines from the United Kingdom side. It narrows the scope considerably into a free trade agreement. That is not what the objective of the European Union is, but it seems to be the objective of the United Kingdom," he said.

That same theme was taken up by the Taoiseach in an address at the University of Leuven in Belgium on Thursday. London must lose at least some of those "red lines" and deal.

On Monday next, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is due in Dundalk to renew his acquaintance with the area and the Border issues associated with Brexit.

From France's alpine region, he has a knowledge of Ireland gleaned as France's agriculture minister and as EU commissioner in charge of regional funds.

Despite Mr Barnier's hard-ball approach in public, and the UK side's apparent immovability, there are suggestions of change in the air. But it will take time.

Irish Independent

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