"Special Irish border deal not possible"

“Special Irish border deal not possible”

An article in the Business section of today’s Irish Times should be required reading for everyone in Irish public life. It is by Kevin O’Rourke, Chichele Professor of economic history at Oxford University and the headline really tells it all: “Special deal to stop return of Border controls not possible.” It lays out the real background against which calls for special status will be heard across Europe. By extension it is also the background against which calls for tough Irish negotiating stances should be judged in the domestic political arena.

The logic is politically unpalatable, but absolutely relentless: The UK is going to take the north out of the customs union and any deal that allowed the Republic to remain within the EU while not enforcing customs controls would mean that it was effectively outside the customs union too.

This, argues O’Rourke, is not something that can be fudged or negotiated away because there is “zero ambiguity” on the issues involved. Supposing the EU had a tariff of 20% on Japanese cars while the UK had a tariff of 10%. People from France or Germany could then buy their much cheaper Toyotas in Newry, drive them into the EU at Killean/Carrickcarnon and put the boot down for Rosslare. This is called trade diversion.

Why would the other 26 members, whose industries are protected by the 20% tariff, put up with that? If we don’t customs-check incoming goods at Carrickcarnon, we will end up with the French customs-checking all our goods in Cherbourg.

“No wiggle room here …  and for good reason: the customs union has been the uncontested heart of the European project since the 1950s. As long as the North is outside the EU and its customs union and the Republic is inside, there will have to be Border controls between North and South to rule out trade diversion ….

“It is logically coherent, if lunatic, to argue that Ireland should quit the EU and join the UK customs union. (Leaving the EU would on its own obviously not suffice to avoid a North-South border: our exit from the EU would have to be of the red, white, and blue variety.)

“It is also logically coherent to argue that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU, and I wish it would. That seems like something worth arguing for. But it is logically incoherent to argue that if we remain in the EU and its customs union, and the North leaves both, there can be some special deal that will avoid the need for a customs frontier on the island.”

Many in Ireland, including Brexit Border Blog, have criticised the lack of logical coherence in the British stance on Brexit. It would be most unwise if we were to go down that path ourselves in the run-up to negotiations because we simply did not examine the very real limits of the negotiating space. O’Rourke concludes with a warning against this type of inconsistency.

“Those who say Ireland should leave the EU know they are in a small minority. Many will not come out and argue for their position particularly strongly for fear of being laughed out of court. The evidence that our prosperity is based on EU membership is overwhelming. Still, expect them, in the months and years ahead, to claim that the return of a customs frontier somehow shows that “the EU” has let Ireland down.

“The Brexit campaign shows that such dishonesty can pay. Which is why it is so important that everyone understand that if the North leaves the EU and its customs union, and we remain inside it, there is nothing that the EU or anyone else can do to prevent the return of such a frontier.”