Consent and conciliation: Brexit and the Border

Given the ambiguity in December’s Joint Report between the UK and the EU, the UK’s reaction to the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement is unsurprising. Equally unsurprisingly, anger focused most on the protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Irish Border is Brexit’s most fraught question. People can cross it without checks due to the Common Travel Area. Military checkpoints closed over time: the last came down in the last decade. Goods cross unchecked, thanks to a customs union and shared regulatory standards. And thanks to common EU systems, VAT and excise duties don’t need to be checked either. Brexit puts this at risk.

Border protocol

The protocol clarifies that the UK and Ireland can continue to make provision for the free movement of persons without checks. This is crucial: controlling travel between Ireland and Northern Ireland would prove unworkable. The symbolic and human implications of trying would be appalling. Checkpoints would likely become targets. In 1939–52, we had controls between Great Britain and the island of Ireland instead.

More contentiously, the protocol lists areas where Northern Ireland would apply EU law to avoid checks on goods or customs. The ‘common regulatory area’ would cover:

  • EU law on the free movement of goods
  • EU customs legislation, with Northern Ireland considered part of the EU’s customs territory
  • bans on restricting imports/exports, both upfront and by the back door
  • EU law on VAT and excise duties.

EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules and standards for agriculture and fisheries would apply. The same goes for wholesale electricity markets, much environmental protection, and state aid as it affects EU-Northern Ireland trade.

You can argue about whether every aspect of this protocol represents the ‘bare minimum’ to avoid a hard Border. Ukraine’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement provides a precedent for internal market treatment on the basis of ‘approximating’ legislation. (I suspect ‘approximation’ will look very much like ‘adoption’.) Other approaches which recognise the Court of Justice of the European Union’s jurisdiction could also be found.

Still, I can’t see how you avoid any border checks without regulatory alignment in goods, a full customs union and shared law on VAT and excise duties. And paragraph 49 of the Joint Report was wide-ranging:

Both sides have defined a hard border to mean no physical infrastructure. I read this to mean UK, and not only Northern Ireland, alignment. And there are fundamental problems with a full economic border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Border economics

Obviously, the economics don’t explain why borders in these islands are so contentious. But Northern Ireland stands to lose more than most of the UK from Brexit. So we should scrutinise claims about the economics of the Border.

Northern Ireland’s exports are more EU-focused, and dramatically more Irish-focused, than Great Britain’s. 35% of its exports go to Ireland alone. But ‘exports’ don’t cover trade within the UK — and 59% of Northern Ireland’s external sales go to Great Britain.

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Data: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

That holds across the vast majority of sectors. For instance, 61% of Northern Ireland’s external sales are of manufactured goods, and mainly go to Great Britain.

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Data: Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency

Some reply that a sea or air crossing is inherently more onerous than a land one and so can better accommodate checks. This carries some weight. But economically, it’s hard to argue it makes up for the impact on nearly four times the sales. ‘You’ve got to cross water anyway’ doesn’t work for UK manufacturing trade with Germany. It can’t logically work for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland either.

There are some exceptions. No one sensible should break up the all-Ireland single electricity market or have different rail gauges on the island. But absent very compelling evidence, the economics of a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea don’t stack up.

The Belfast Agreement and the Border

More fundamentally, unionists’ case rests on the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent. Many have argued that principle requires special status if a choice must be made. They claim border checks should reflect Northern Ireland’s Remain vote.

It’s superficially plausible, but I think it falls on reading the Agreement. The parties agreed to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland’.

Brexit makes it harder for nationalists to accommodate themselves to the UK. That’s one reason voting Leave was such a mistake. But the principle of consent clearly relates to the choice between the Union and a united Ireland. It cannot be cited in and of itself to argue for particular relationships with the EU.

Special arrangements for Northern Ireland don’t breach the principle of consent in a literal sense. And all sides accept Northern Ireland is unique. Other parts of the UK do not have the right to join another state guaranteed by international treaty. And the world’s most lopsided liberal democracy can hardly insist on total internal symmetry.

But there is a principled difference between more autonomy for Northern Ireland and differentiation aligning it with another state. That’s particularly true when Northern Ireland has no direct say in the arrangement. Being in the UK entails more than MPs at Westminster. Beyond a certain point, the spirit of the principle of consent must be given its due. I believe a state-like economic and regulatory border within the UK passes that point.

Precedents exist for excluding parts of the EU from its customs union, and indeed for excluding parts of EU member states from the EU itself. But Northern Ireland is neither small and uncontested nor distant and geographically isolated. It is reasonable and just for unionists to expect to remain meaningfully integrated into the economy of their state.

The Border is deeply sensitive for nationalists — London’s insensitivity on that point stands as an indictment. We should avoid forcing a choice on borders if we possibly can. But constitutional status, in spirit and letter, is just as sensitive for unionists. On this, the DUP is quite as firm as it claims. So is the UUP. Liberal unionists such as Sylvia Hermon expect alignment to be UK-wide.

The EU27 side is making a fundamental mistake if it thinks the Agreement means an unmarked border with Ireland trumps avoiding an economic border with Great Britain. Strand Two of the Agreement does indeed provide for a North-South dimension. But it’s carefully defined, far more so than in the Sunningdale Agreement which preceded it.

In fact, it’s crucially important and insufficiently understood that the Belfast Agreement is far clearer on constitutional status than Sunningdale. There are reasons for that. It is quite as dangerous to ignore unionists’ concerns on status as to dismiss nationalists’ fears about borders.

Consistency cuts both ways

On Brexit, I normally criticise our government for wishful thinking, denialism and contradictory commitments. And there’s plenty of fault to lay at London’s door. Casually dismissing the Border problem, blithely assuming Dublin would give ground and pretending technology could fix a fundamental policy problem stand testament to that. But the EU27 side’s position on the Border has contradictions too.

Paragraph 50 of the Joint Report is crucial:

Barnier has said that how the UK delivers on paragraph 50 is a purely UK affair. That’s rather disingenuous. The EU has rightly pushed back on UK hints about turning a blind eye or exempting most businesses from customs controls — they’d create a smugglers’ paradise and break WTO law to boot. By the same token, the UK can’t turn a blind eye either.

So London can’t unilaterally prevent any barriers within the UK and deliver on paragraph 49. The EU and UK would have to extend arrangements to prevent barriers on the island of Ireland to Great Britain to do that. And having signed up to paragraph 50, the EU should surely allow it to be deliverable.

So the EU has a choice too, not just the UK. It’s currently saying something along Canadian lines (or perhaps a bit more like the now-abortive TTIP) is the only realistic option for Great Britain. Combined with the draft protocol, that clearly means an economic border in the Irish Sea — and a fallback option which doesn’t really deliver on the Joint Report.

Compromise works both ways

To be clear: I believe the UK Government is far more at fault in the Brexit negotiations than its EU counterparts. It has failed to make the effort to understand its partners — worse, it indulged in self-indulgent nationalist rhetoric at the price of alienating them. It has failed to prepare its people to face the gulf between Vote Leave’s fantasies and Brexit’s reality — May’s speech on Friday was a belated, partial start. And it has spent far too long effectively seeking to gain the economic benefits of the EU without the institutional obligations.

But the EU’s ‘Norway or Canada’ mantra (though it shouldn’t be taken wholly literally) carries its own problems. A balance of rights and obligations is fair and reasonable. A binary approach makes it politically impossible to solve the very question the EU labels a sine qua non. (And of course, ‘Norway’ wouldn’t solve the Border issue anyway.)

If the UK can move further towards realism and away from its needlessly hardline Brexit policy, and if the EU can define avoiding cherrypicking as a balance of rights and obligations and not a binary split, there might be a way to give everyone something. It would probably include something close to the Withdrawal Treaty protocol for the whole UK.

The UK might hope for more input into drawing up regulations, drawing on EEA precedents. It would seek concessions on services, perhaps drawing on Ukraine (though falling short of the EEA). It might ask for a little more room for regulatory manoeuvre — Ukrainian ‘approximation’ rather than EEA adoption. The EU could demand a substantial financial contribution. It could also expect a liberal and preferential UK migration policy short of free movement. And London would need to accept regulatory alignment as binding. (Kevin O’Rourke and Sam Lowe and John Springford have put forward very similar options.)

The UK could then say it had reduced economic disruption while curbing EEA movement. The EU would be able to say there was a real price for leaving and the UK and Ireland could remain borderless. From Great Britain’s perspective, I’ve tended to see an EEA-ish Brexit as the least-worst option, especially for services. However, Northern Ireland’s greater reliance on manufacturing and links with Ireland make it different. And given the stakes, I’d be willing to put Northern Ireland first.

I accept this is asking a lot of the EU. But I hope the EU might consider its origins as a peace project for our continent. And so I’d argue it, too, should prioritise protecting the peace project on these islands.

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