Irish border paper: Britain is hostage to its own delusions

"Absolutely every danger highlighted in this paper was extensively warned about over the last few months."
"Absolutely every danger highlighted in this paper was extensively warned about over the last few months."
Ian Dunt By

Over the last 12 months, Leavers were warned that a hard Brexit outside the customs union and single market would lead to the return of a hard border in Ireland. They called it Project Fear. Now here we are and Project Fear is Project Reality. The government's position paper on Ireland today suggests they have no plans to deal with this problem except to plead with the EU to save us from our own decisions.

The paper makes substantial promises. Not only does the government pledge no hard border in Ireland, but also that there should be no "physical border infrastructure… for any purpose". Quite how they can stick to this given their reliance on technological solutions framed around the use of surveillance is another matter. That is the pledge and it has consequences. 

A long preamble to the paper details the history of the border in Ireland - how the HMRC posts were the target of bombing attacks during the Troubles and had to be manned by a very significant military and security presence, including watchtowers and road blocks. The Good Friday Agreement committed to the removal of security installations and the border has effectively disappeared. But Britain has now put this arrangement at threat. Not that you'd know it. The pointed references to the Good Friday Agreement make it sound as if it is Brussels which is doing this by refusing to give us everything we want. It is almost like they are daring the EU to oppose their suggestions, at which stage they will accuse it of threatening the peace process.

There are two types of free movement to protect: one on people and one on goods. The former has legal protection in Irish, UK and EU law. Protocol 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU allows the UK and Ireland to "continue to make arrangements between themselves relating to the movement of persons between their territories".


The real danger is not from the EU, but from right-wing tabloids, who are likely to complain that an open border allows any EU citizen to get into Britain from Ireland and work illegally.
This is muddled thinking. A Polish plumber heading to the UK after Brexit will presumably be able to come using a tourist visa, unless we plan to ban Europeans from even coming here on holiday. And they could just as easily work illegally having done that as they could work illegally entering the UK through Ireland.

The reality is that the people problem is outsourced. Recent legislation imposed severe penalties on firms and individuals who do not check candidates' right to work, so the responsibility here has been effectively handed to employers. On security, intelligence agencies in the country will hopefully make up for the lack of checks at the border. And finally, we will presumably have to outsource a lot of the immigration work to the Irish. After all, six countries require a visa to the UK but not to Ireland. Someone has to check they're not sidestepping that through the open border.

On goods, the paper effectively throws up its hands in surrender. The border between Ireland and the UK will become an external border of the EU customs union and the only real solution Westminster has are its fantasy-land suggestions from yesterday about "innovative" new arrangements, either through streamlining checks or a new customs relationship. 

At one point, the UK government basically appeals to the EU to forget about it altogether. "One potential approach," it says, is to say that smaller traders "cannot be properly categorised and treated as economically significant international trade". In other words: Just wave them through. How many people would get waved through under this system? The paper states that 80% of North to South trade was carried out by "micro, small and medium-sized businesses".

Of course, what will really happen here is that someone will take us to court. A company importing something from a separate EU customs border, say at Calais, will make a claim at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) because those importing them across the Irish border are having an easier time. And the ECJ will rule in favour of them for the simple reason that they are not enforcing the external border of the customs union. It's not a matter for Westminster, or the Irish government, or even the European Commission. It is simply a matter of law.

So the position paper asks the EU to scrub out that law. It cites the case of Cyprus, Croatia-Bosnia and recent derogations from Schengen over the refugee crisis. "There are a number of examples of where the EU has set aside the normal regulations and codes set out in EU law in order to recognise the circumstances of certain border areas," it says.  Britain is asking for something really rather significant here. The EU has no idea what Britain will be like in years to come. We can't even decide on what kind of Brexit we want. Not so long ago Philip Hammond and Theresa May were threatening to turn the UK into a low-regulation tax haven, undercutting the EU on its doorstep.

What if Britain now starts cutting regulations across the board, from chemical standards to animal welfare? All those goods would then be able to freely cross the Irish border into the EU, where they wouldn't be checked, no matter how many countries they went to. What if the UK reduced tariffs on a kind of product? What would stop unscrupulous exporters sending it to the UK and from there getting it into the EU through the Irish border? Nothing. The British are asking the EU to give up control of what goes into and out of the single market and customs union, and their only leverage is the moral fact that we have risked our own Irish peace process. They are being asked to lean over so far backwards in order to accommodate our decisions that they could break their back.

The one area where the UK government is most concerned about checks on the border is with sanitary and phytosanitary measures for agri-food, which includes agriculture, horticulture and food and drink processing technology. The EU has very detailed and strenuous controls on these types of imports, which the UK is keen to avoid. In doing so it proposes something remarkable. "One option for achieving our objectives could be regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures, where the UK and EU agree to achieve the same outcome and high standards," it says.

This effectively hands over the UK's control in this sector so that we would mirror whatever the EU did. This would constitute a very severe impediment to striking trade deals with other countries, like the US. Its now-famous chlorinated chicken and hormone injected beef would presumably not satisfy these standards, and nor would genetically-modified crops. Also, this would drag Britain into the shadow of the ECJ, which is one of May's vacuous and self-harming red lines. We wouldn't be directly under ECJ jurisdiction but its judgments would directly dictate UK policy.

What's fascinating about this proposal is that it throws into stark relief one of the core choices Britain has to make when it comes to Brexit. Is it going to apply European standards or American ones? They have dodged this question throughout the last year, but here we see them finally being forced to confront it. If we sign up to European standards on food, chemical safety, digital rights, pharmaceuticals and the rest, we're of little use to the US. If we don't, we will have completely disconnected ourselves from our largest trading partner. The cake-and-eat-it theory is finally meeting the cold light of reality.

Absolutely every danger highlighted in this paper was extensively warned about over the last few months. It is now clear, if anyone doubted it, that the government has no idea how to address them.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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