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Theresa May in Brussels, Belgium, 12/08/2017 © Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

For a Brexit Deal, How Difficult Is the Irish Backstop?

Reaching a Brexit deal is far from over. Just look how difficult it was for the Canada and Ukraine agreements.

The harder the Brexit, the harder it will be to reach a resolution of the Irish border problem. In a joint report in December 2017, the United Kingdom agreed to respect Ireland’s place in the European Union and that there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland. This was to apply “in all circumstances, irrespective of any future agreement between the EU and the UK.”

The further the UK negotiating demand goes from continued membership of the EU, the harder it will be for it to fulfill the commitments it has given on the Irish border in the joint report.

If the British government had decided to leave the EU but stay in the customs union, the Irish border questions would have been minimized. But the government decided to reject that because it hoped to make better trade deals with non-EU countries than the ones it has as a member of the European Union. If Westminster had decided to leave the EU but join the European Economic Area (the Norway option), this would also have minimized the Irish border problems. The government rejected that because it would have meant continued free movement of people from the EU into the UK.

In each decision, maintaining its relations with Ireland was given a lower priority than the supposed benefits of trade agreements with faraway places and being able to curb EU immigration. The government got its priorities wrong.

Future trade agreements that may be made with countries outside the EU will be neither as immediate, nor as beneficial to the UK as maintaining peace and good relations on the island of Ireland. The most they will do is replace the 70 or more trade agreements with non-EU countries that the UK already has as an EU member and will lose when it leaves.

EU immigration to the UK, if it ever was a problem, is a purely temporary and finite one. Already the economies of central European countries are picking up and, as time goes by, there will be fewer people from those countries wanting to emigrate to the UK (or anywhere else) to find work. These countries have low birth rates and aging populations and, therefore, a diminishing pool of potential emigrants.

Solving the supposed EU immigration “problem” is less important to the UK in the long run than peace and good relations in — and with — Ireland.

If, as is now suggested, the UK looks for a Canada or Ukraine-style deal, the Irish border problem will be even worse. British Prime Minister Theresa May has recognized this, which is why she rejects a Canada-style deal. This type of deal would mean the collection of heavy tariffs on food products, either on the Irish Sea or on the Irish border. Collecting them on the long land border would be physically impracticable, so the only option would be to do it on the Irish Sea. The all Ireland economy — to which the UK committed itself in the joint report — would be irrevocably damaged. The economic foundation of the Good Friday Agreement would be destroyed, too.

It is time for the Conservative Party to return to being conservative, and instead conserve the peace it helped build in Ireland on the twin foundations of the Belfast Agreement and the EU treaties. The Conservatives might remember that, without then-Prime Minister John Major’s negotiation of the Downing Street Declaration in 1993, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

PROBLEMS GETTING A BREXIT DEAL

The proposals the UK government is making for its future relationship with the EU will run into a number of obstacles.

The first will be that of persuading the EU that the UK will stick to any deal it makes. Two collectively responsible members of the British cabinet, Michael Gove and Liam Fox, have both suggested that the UK might agree to a withdrawal treaty on the basis of the Chequers formula, but later, once out to the EU, abandon it and do whatever it likes. This would be negotiating with the EU in bad faith. Why should the European Union make a permanent concession to the UK if cabinet members intend to treat the deal as temporary?

The second problem relates to the substance of Britain’s proposals. They would require the EU to give control of its trade borders and subcontract control to a non-member: the UK. While Britain envisages a common EU-UK rulebook for the quality of goods circulating via the United Kingdom into the EU single market, the British Parliament would still retain the option of not passing some of the relevant legislation to give effect to it. The UK would not be bound to accept the European Court of Justice’s interpretation of what the common rules meant. Common interpretation of a common set of rules is what makes a common market common.

May is not the only prime minister with domestic constraints. Creating a precedent of allowing the UK to opt into some parts of the single market (but not all) would create immediate demands for exceptions from other EU members — and from Switzerland and Norway, who pay large annual fees for entry to the single market as non-European Union members. This would play straight into the hands of populists in the European Parliament elections, which take place in May 2019, just two months after the UK is scheduled to leave the EU.

It does not require much political imagination to see that aspects of the UK proposal, if incorporated in a final trade deal in a few years’ time, would be a hard sell in the parliaments of some of the 27 EU member states. We must remember that all that would be needed for the Brexit deal to fail would be for just one of them to say no. Do you remember how difficult it was to get the Canada and Ukraine deals through?

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.