Down to the crunch on land/sea border issue

Down to the crunch on land/sea border issue

The Times of London is reporting that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is no longer looking for special deals on the land border but rather wants the EU external border with the EU to be in the middle of the Irish Sea.

The furious response of the DUP’s Geoffrey Donaldson, who called it dangerous talk, shows some of the political difficulties with this idea.

The Times report seems to be based on a statement from Foreign Minister Simon Coveney to a meeting of his EU counterparts (and repeated in Dublin and Belfast): “What we do not want to pretend is that we can solve the problems of the border on the island of Ireland through technical solutions like cameras and pre-registration and so on. That is not going to work.”

Coveney is right. Technology does not pay the tariff. Most of the reporting on border technology comes from the Swedish/Norwegian frontier and reporters tend to neglect to say that both countries are actually in the single market.

Coveney went on: “”Any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process …. we want to keep the free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods.”

The issue is ultimately simple: the only way to avoid a very hard border on the island of Ireland is for Northern Ireland to remain at least within the customs union and preferably within the single market.

Such an outcome would not solve our major economic problems with Brexit. The Northern Ireland market is small: we would still face a tariff wall for exports to the vastly larger market in Great Britain. But it would solve the immediate political problem of the border in the context of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is good that the idea of the sea border is now out in the open where everyone can examine it. Coveney is a shrewd operator: he and the Taoiseach have probably run this idea by Michel Barnier before going public.

As far as we know, the EU position is that it is up to the British side to come forward with proposals for safeguarding the peace process in the context of Brexit. Put that another way, it is up to the British to say what sort of special status the north could have within the UK that would allow an open border. It is up to the British to propose how the north could stay within the customs union and/or the single market.

Obviously, a Conservative government dependent on DUP support would not want to rush forward with a plan for a border in the Irish Sea. But at some point Theresa May – or her successor – will need progress in the Brussels talks. Already, May’s deal with the DUP is causing disquiet in the equally strong Scottish Tory contingent in Westminster. Brexit is a terrible mess on all fronts. Some day soon the Irish Sea border may look like the least worst option.