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Brexit’s contradictions trap May between border and sea

With four months remaining until the UK leaves the EU, Theresa May is caught between the devil and the deep grey Irish sea. The November meeting of EU heads of state, originally pencilled in as the date when Brexit negotiations would be signed off on, could now become an emergency response to a potential no-deal Brexit.

The major obstacle to closing a deal is the Irish border. Leave won the 2016 referendum by promising voters new trade deals around the world, the continued territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and a frictionless Irish border. As these promises cannot coexist with one another, May faces the unenviable task of choosing which to renege on.

If Britain leaves the customs union and the single market, then it must have customs procedures for trade with the EU. This means either checks at the border, or on goods crossing the Irish sea. And if Britain stays within these institutions, there is little point to leaving: the EU rulebook is retained, there will be no new trade deals, and a large chunk of the voting population will be left feeling betrayed and angry.

The main thrust of the Brexit negotiations has revolved around squaring this circle. The most recent proposal involved keeping Northern Ireland within the single market, and Britain in the customs union.

This still leaves major issues to be resolved. Quite apart from stifling cross-sea trade, it would involve accepting illegal migration into Britain. The government says there will be no special immigration treatment for EU nationals after Brexit. That means work visas. And that also means that the lack of ID checks on travel from Northern Ireland would become a glaring loophole in Britain’s new migration regime, with little chance of checking if EU nationals are overstaying their welcome.

The alternative would be to introduce passport checks on journeys from Belfast to Liverpool – political suicide for a government dependent on unionist votes, and a threat to the peace process.

This, ultimately, is the great flaw with every suggestion made to date. Whichever side loses out in the negotiation, the peace process is put at risk. While the EU is focused on the need to prevent border infrastructure becoming a target for republican bombs, hardline unionists are unlikely to be amused by a regulatory and travel regime that leaves Northern Ireland more closely aligned to the Republic than to the United Kingdom. If the government insists on a full separation from the EU, then there is an argument that a second referendum should be held: a border poll on reunification.

The assumption underlying the current settlement is that is equally possible to feel British or Irish within the six counties. If Brexit means introducing barriers within these islands that have not existed for decades, then this will no longer hold. In a vacuum, such a poll could reignite sectarian violence. But with Brexit throwing the region into turmoil, a border poll could have the effect of legitimising the new arrangements – or replacing them with ones more to the populations liking.  

If the Conservative and Unionist party decides it wants to live up to the second half of its name, then it does have two other options. It could scrap Brexit entirely, or it could keep Britain in the single market and customs union.  While the latter might be more palatable to May’s backbenchers, it would contain a delicious irony; at long last, London would be ruled from Dublin.

Header image courtesy of Greg Clarke, used under a creative commons license.