Absolutism on Border risks hardest of Brexits - and last laugh for Rees-Mogg
The aim of no changes on this island looks unachievable. So what about the Swiss option, asks Dan O'Brien
In exactly one year from now there may be no flights between Ireland and Britain. As the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, the Border on this island could be in turmoil as the Government scrambles to meet its commitments to maintaining what will have become overnight an EU external border.
That scenario could come to pass if Britain leaves the EU on March 29 next without any exit deal. Given the way Brexit talks have gone over the past year, it is not at all improbable that they will break down over the course of this year.
Such an outcome would be the worst possible scenario for Ireland. If it were to come about, or be perceived to have come about, because the Government has taken an excessively inflexible position on the Irish Border, it would be even worse. Ireland would burn through a considerable amount of political capital with other EU countries - and the damage to Ireland- Britain relations would be incalculable.
It goes without saying that the underlying blame for all that has unfolded and all that will unfold lies with those who advocated, voted for and pursued Brexit. It would far better that Brexit be abandoned or, if it did go ahead, that the UK remained in the EU's market mechanisms. But the probability of either of those outcomes is low and the British have at most six months to make up their minds.
A central fact, if not the central fact, in the decision of the British government is that one in five Conservative MPs is a member of the hard Brexit European Research Group led by arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg.
They believe that no deal on Brexit is better than what they consider to be a bad deal. For them, a bad deal would include making the sort of major reversals to the UK government's stated position on Brexit that would be required to ensure frictionless trade between Ireland and the UK.
Railing against these 60-plus MPs and how little they care about Ireland won't make them go away and certainly won't make them change their minds.
Faced with a weak British government dependent on politicians whose manic zeal for a hard Brexit knows few limits, the position of the Irish government remains that Brexit can bring absolutely no change to the functioning or the feel of the Border between the two jurisdictions on this island.
The main reason it has taken this absolutist position is the belief that any change to the current arrangements could threaten peace by reradicalising sections of the nationalist community in the North. This is understandable.
Memories of the Border conjure up images of heavily armed English squaddies barking at people as they cross it to go about their business. For nationalists, the rebuilding of the border also brings back memories of being locked into a political entity that was for decades discriminatory and undemocratic in any holistic understanding of that word. There are fears that any change to the status quo could lead to the Border becoming a flashpoint or trigger a return to violence as republican paramilitaries target border infrastructure. There has been too little analysis of this risk and what can be done to mitigate it.
Before looking at that issue specifically, consider an outcome for the Border that could end up being the best attainable option.
I lived on the Swiss-French border for three years and crossed back and forth at least once a week. I was never stopped once. The border on smaller road crossings is invisible and there are no barriers or customs posts. Only on the larger roads are there customs posts. They do require traffic to slow but navigating them is less time-consuming than going through a toll booth on a motorway.
Individuals are free to bring goods back and forth. Although there is a limit to the value of goods that can be brought in without paying duties and tariffs, in practice it is not enforced. For the daily life of individuals going about their business, the border between Switzerland and the four EU countries that surround it is only marginally different from the border on this island.
That, however, is not the case for businesses.
Commercial vehicles must declare goods and pay the relevant taxes. This hinders cross-border commerce. Imposing such a border on this island would come with costs. It would play havoc with some supply chains that span the Border. The overall costs would depend on many things, including the onerousness of the checks and the level of tariffs and customs duties, which in turn would partly depend on the choices Britain makes in its trading relations with non-EU countries in the future.
Switzerland is outside both the EU's single market and customs union, but has a bilateral trade deal with the EU. It is also part of the EU's free movement of people arrangement, known as the Schengen Agreement. The Common Travel Area on these islands is similar to the Schengen Agreement. That goes a great deal of the way to making a future border on this island unobtrusive for people going about their daily business around the border.
What about physical infrastructure that could be targeted by militants?
The British government has said it will place no new physical infrastructure on its side of the Border, something that even the hard Brexiteers go along with.
If the UK's new arrangement with the EU was similar to Switzerland's, not having infrastructure on the Northern side would lead to more non-payment of relevant taxes to British revenue. But that is for the British to deal with and they have said they would take the hit.
The biggest gain of no British border infrastructure would be in political and security terms - there would be no targets created for dissident republicans.
In such a Swiss-style scenario, the situation would be different on the Republic's side of the border. While the UK outside the EU will have no obligations to others, the Irish government will have to collect the EU's common external tariff. It will also have to prevent leakage into the EU's single market. As the French farmers' union long ago pointed out, the incentive for smuggling could be significant if Britain cuts its tariffs on goods from non-EU countries (thereby making them cheaper than within the EU).
This raises the question as to whether border infrastructure on the southern side, manned by Irish government officials, would become a target for dissidents.
Those I have asked from the nationalist tradition in the North said they thought it unlikely that even the most extreme dissidents would target them. Further, even if they did target facilities on the southern side of the Border, doing so would have no support within the nationalist community and certainly not lead to wider reradicalisation.
None of this is to say that a Swiss-type border arrangement is better than the current arrangement. It is not. But in life the choices one faces are rarely easy ones between the perfect and the unacceptable. Often one must choose between the lesser of two evils.
Pushing an absolutist position of no change at all on the Border is increasing the risk that a no deal Brexit will happen. That would certainly result in a harder border than exists between the EU and Switzerland.
The Swiss arrangement may be the best outcome that is achievable. It needs much greater consideration by the Government than it has been given heretofore.