(Image: Foreign Policy Blogs)
BY ISSY SHANNON, UK Editor
With the countdown to Britain’s exit from the EU well and truly underway, we are seemingly no closer to knowing what will be done, if anything, over the issue of the Irish border.
Both May and the European negotiators have been clear in their reassurance for wishing to avoid a hard border, but have not yet clarified how exactly this will be done.
Currently, because the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom are both members of the European Union, goods can be traded freely across the border. This is all set to change, however, as in under 200 days time the UK is set to leave the EU and with it, the single market and the customs union thus making cross-border trade a sticky issue.
There are ongoing discussions of a ‘Backstop solution’, a last resort should negotiations fail, whereby a specific agreement on the Irish border would allow the vital trade to continue post-Brexit. But again the same problem seems to arise – both sides agree a backup plan is necessary, but have so far failed to outline what this plan should be.
It is easy for the problem of the Irish border to be swept under the carpet amidst other headline-grabbing negotiations – such as freedom of movement and the single market. Nevertheless, the Irish border is an issue which is demanding attention. In 2016, 33% of Northern Ireland’s goods exports crossed the border into the Republic. A stat which highlights just how crucial this issue is to negotiate and the economic importance of continued trade for Northern Ireland
Furthermore, any division between the two nations could be seen as undermining the Good Friday Agreement, whilst a border down the Irish Sea Theresa May argues could threaten the “Constitutional Integrity of the UK.” Again highlighting the desperate need for a solution.
As well as receiving relatively little media coverage, the government’s Brexit rhetoric seems to be avoiding the topic. As Theresa May reiterates her Chequers Plan which entails leaving the Customs Union but keeping a soft Irish border – but with relatively little explanation as to how this is going to work in real terms. Many have suggested she is blatantly avoiding the issue as there is no clear solution to appease both sides. This is particularly complicated by the fact that May is reliant on the DUP for her Parliamentary majority.
Another area where discussions of the Irish Border were severely lacking, were the referendum campaigns themselves. Neither the official Leave campaign or the Remainers seemed to acknowledge fully the extent to which the Irish border could cause a problem. Did the Brexiteers not recognise the problem this could cause? Or were they fully aware and chose not to discuss it in detail, knowing full well it would undermine their campaign?
Either way, as the 29th March looms ever closer, the situation is still no more transparent.
The problem of the Irish Border perfectly encapsulates the mess that the Brexit negotiations are currently in. Whichever way you voted you were most likely not fully informed of all of the consequences – Irish border and all. If even the experts can see no solution to this puzzle, why should members of the public be entrusted to decide upon Britain’s future?
What is the solution? Is there a solution? With every suggested solution seeming to contradict itself in some way, the problem of the Irish border alone seems to call into question the legitimacy of Brexit and only time will tell what the negotiators will manage to scrape into some form of a deal – not that they have much time left at all.