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As the official Brexit date of March 29, 2019 approaches the main sticking point to an orderly Brexit now appears to be the lack of agreement between the UK and the EU on whether or not there will be a hard border between the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Northern Ireland (NI).
But why there exists a sticking point that involves Northern Ireland in the Brexit negotiations is anyone’s guess as there’s no good reason for the EU to treat Northern Ireland any different from the way it treats the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and has been since the year 1800 and such was formalized in a treaty that covered the matter and many other matters between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in 1922.
Q: What would drive European Union negotiators to want to inflame tensions in the region? How could that possibly benefit the EU?
A: The simple answer is that EU leaders don’t want the UK to leave the union and one way to accomplish that goal is to make Brexit appear to be a hopelessly complicated situation and EU negotiators would thereby hope to win in the court of public opinion. The theory is that UK citizens would then apply enough pressure on HM government to give up on Brexit.
Which has a microscopic chance of succeeding. To wit: Widely published online polls circulate in the UK media say things like; ‘Most Remainers these days just want to get Brexit over and done with’ due to the economic uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
And the Brexit timeline doesn’t seem to faze EU negotiators either — who it must be said — are representing the interests of the EU27 and not the UK, nor of individual Britons. Which puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?
“Countries don’t have friends, they have interests.” — Sir Winston Churchill
Other items like the Belfast Agreement (read the complete text of that agreement here) also known as the Good Friday Agreement which lists no requirements for a hard border, soft border, or no border… also doesn’t seem to matter to EU negotiators.
And of course it doesn’t. Why would it? The EU’s negotiating teams are working for the interests of the EU27 — as you might expect — and not the interests of the UK nor of individual Britons. It’s preposterous to expect European Union negotiators to work for the interests of any country other than the EU.
Option One: The Question Everyone Asks: Why Not a Regular Land Border Like Every Other Country in the World?
The simplest solution would be to create a normal land border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and the EU’s Republic of Ireland along the entire 310-mile-long boundary between the two countries and everyone on both sides could thenceforth act like adults and there needn’t be any more trouble there than any other border in the world.
Practically every country in the world has a border and rarely are there problems with this modality in the 21st-century.
Maybe it’s time for both sides on the island of Eire (which both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share) to craft a new agreement that creates a normal, hard border (just as all mature countries do) and thenceforth ‘agree to disagree’ (just as all mature countries do) and ‘agree to agree’ on matters of mutual interest (just as all mature countries do) It seems that 99 per cent of countries manage to do this just fine.
Perhaps this is asking too much of the UK and the EU, or of the people of NI or the ROI… but creating a normal border between the two Irelands would demonstrate to the world that the Belfast Agreement was an important step towards permanent peace on the island of Eire and it would show the world that *forward momentum never stopped* on either side since the 1998 signing of that accord.
Profoundly, a one-page addendum could be added to the existing Belfast Agreement spelling out the frames of reference with regards to a normal land border between the UK and the EU. Problem solved!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Brexit turned out to be the impetus for a new and better relationship between Eire’s people?
Think of *those* photo-ops UK and EU negotiators! For the rest of the 21st-century you’d be the darlings of the world media along with Irish people on both sides of the border.
Option Two: The Present Course Leads the UK and the EU Towards Dispute
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has spent the past two-years hopscotching all over Europe trying to create a workable Brexit deal — and in this context ‘workable’ means a Brexit agreement that works well for the UK and its people, for the EU27 nations, and for the EU/EC leaders in Brussels. Very admirable, Theresa.
Apparently, 95 per cent of the Brexit terms and conditions are agreed according to UK PM Theresa May and the only sticking point is agreement on a border/no border between ROI and NI. If accurate, that’s good news!
The UK Prime Minister has said on many occasions that Northern Ireland is clearly a part of the United Kingdom (which is indisputable) and it must remain so following Brexit. As has has Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.
So, if EU negotiators were trying to steal Northern Ireland by stealth, they ran into a brick wall when Theresa May and Arlene Foster joined forces. (And hey, there’s nothing wrong with the EU testing the resolve of the UK and NI to see if they are still firmly committed to keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom)
But now that it’s been made clear to EU negotiators that it would be unseemly of them to continue to try to pull Northern Ireland away from the United Kingdom. And classy people that they are, it’s doubtful they’ll continue to try.
The present course that leads the UK and the EU towards dispute with both Irelands isn’t about any of the foregoing. It’s about Theresa May’s plan to keep all of the UK in the Customs Union — rather than what the EU wants — which is to keep only Northern Ireland in the Customs Union.
Which is why some observers question the EU’s motives, as retaining the EU Customs Union for Northern Ireland but not the rest of the UK is exactly the way a country would try to annex a territory or province by stealth.
In fact, there is legal precedent.
In the 1930’s, General Motors Corporation enjoyed very lucrative and exclusive U.S. government contracts to build military vehicles — and was allowed to compete against Ford and Chrysler in the public marketplace. Likewise, Chevrolet (a privately held company) competed against Ford and Chrysler.
By the 1950’s Chevrolet’s booming sales meant they had problems producing enough parts to build the huge volumes of cars they were selling and (incredibly) had pre-sold tens of thousands of them to buyers who were impatiently awaiting delivery of their new Chevrolet vehicles.
Subsequently, senior GM and Chevrolet executives met and came up with a plan for GM to build huge numbers of engines and transmissions for Chevrolet using Chevy designs, standards, and manufacturing practices.
As Chevrolet increased their sales exponentially, it leaned evermore on GM to provide parts for Chevy cars, but by the late 1950’s GM was building thousands of vehicles for Chevrolet in GM factories.
Things came to a head in 1959 when Chevrolet accused industrial giant GM of trying to take-over the much smaller Chevrolet by stealth.
In U.S. Supreme Court later that year, the court found that there was so much cross-over between the two firms — that no one, not even Chevrolet’s own lawyers! — could say for certain what belonged to GM and what still belonged to Chevrolet.
Therefore, the U.S. Supreme Court reluctantly ruled in GM’s favour and General Motors immediately accelerated the integration of Chevrolet into GM to prevent renewed legal action by Chevrolet’s lawyers. Shortly thereafter, Chevrolet ceased to be a separate entity and ‘became one’ with GM.
And here is the lesson for the United Kingdom:
If UK negotiators are weak and allow the EU to incrementally absorb Northern Ireland into the EU — after a certain point no international court could say exactly what belonged to the EU and what still belonged to the UK/Northern Ireland. Shortly thereafter, Northern Ireland would ‘become one’ with the European Union.
All of which means that the UK cannot afford to lose this battle. The very nature of the UK is threatened, while for the EU it’s merely an opportunity to gobble-up more territory and punish the UK for leaving.
For Theresa May, keeping the entire UK in the Customs Union seems the only way to abide by the Belfast Agreement and prevent Northern Ireland from being assimilated by the EU.
Recent commentary from her MP’s and from those in the UK media have forced Prime Minister May to say her plan is a temporary one — as leaving the European Union and its Customs Union was a major reason why 17.4 million voted to leave the EU.
Therefore, she and the EU have more negotiations ahead to arrive at a permanent solution to the Northern Ireland conundrum.
Will it get done in any reasonable timeframe? No one knows, because all the EU ever says to the British Prime Minister is; “No”, “No”, and, “No”.
So, wish her well no matter which side of Brexit you’re on, because getting a negotiated Brexit that works for both sides is in everyone’s interest.
Option Three: A So-Called ‘Hard Brexit’ is the ‘Emergency Out’ for the UK
If the EU won’t (1) accept a normal border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and (2) if the EU won’t accept the entire UK staying in the Customs Union for a specified time (until a Northern Ireland agreement can be negotiated) then (3) the EU will have triggered the ‘default option’ for the UK — which is to leave without any agreement.
See how it’s all about the decisions the EU makes?
Such a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ is what Brexiteers have been clamouring for as it best represents their desire for a clean break from the European Union and would allow the UK to begin free trade negotiations immediately following the official Brexit date which would supercharge the UK economy if handled correctly.
Strangely, it also represents the easiest pathway for the EU! The only risk for the EU (at this point no one knows exactly how much risk the EU might sustain in such a scenario) is to the huge trade surplus in goods that the EU presently enjoys with the UK.
But a Hard Brexit would allow the EU to divert its attention to Italy — which for solely economic reasons — might need to leave the EU and the EuroZone for a specified number of years in order to save its stalled economy.
The Hard Brexit option seems to enjoy plenty of support in the UK (except for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor who seem to think it’s the worst available option) but it would be the quickest deal for the UK and it would also allow the EU to instantly pivot to Italy and give 100 per cent of its attention towards creating innovative workarounds for the Italian economy.
Which, if everyone is thinking rightly should make Brexiteers and EU negotiators natural allies regarding a Hard Brexit — especially when framed in the context of Italy — and the sooner Brexiteers and EU leaders realize this, the better.
Place Your Bets!
Option number one (as above) is the best option in my opinion:
The Theresa May 95 per cent Brexit + a normal border between ROI and NI.
Option number two (as above) ranks third place in my opinion:
The Theresa May 95 per cent Brexit + the entire UK stays in the Customs Union for a series of 6-month periods in order to provide the time to negotiate a comprehensive Brexit deal that solves the Northern Ireland conundrum. It’s also the most dangerous Brexit plan by far… re-read what happened to Chevrolet (as above)
Option number three (as above) ranks second-best in my opinion:
The Hard Brexit is the purist’s Brexit — and although it could incur the largest amount of disruption, such disruptions seem wildly overblown (UK agriculture contributes only .52% to UK GDP for example) and a Hard Brexit would gain the UK the most in the shortest amount of time. For certain, the Hard Brexit option must be Theresa May’s ’emergency out’ in case negotiations go bad. And likewise for the EU, the worse it gets in Italy, the more a quick and easy-to-arrange Hard Brexit should appeal to the EU.
Unlike the south of Ireland which broke away from Great Britain in a gradual process that began in 1921 and completed in 1949, the 6 northern counties of Ireland remained loyal to the United Kingdom over the past 477 years and they continue to play an integral role in shaping the future of the UK and The Commonwealth.
Now that Brexit decisions must be made, the UK is blessed by Northern Ireland wanting to remain a part of the United Kingdom.
‘A friend in times of need, is a friend indeed’ and the government and the people of Northern Ireland must always be respected by other UK citizens, in legal matters, in defence policy, in the House of Commons, and by the Monarchy.
EU Designs on Northern Ireland
It’s completely understandable that the EU might attempt to pry Northern Ireland from the UK during Brexit negotiations — which is quite a different thing than the UK agreeing that they should be allowed to get away with it! Yet, if British politicians are clumsy and treat Northern Ireland poorly, it isn’t out of the question that Northern Ireland could leave the United Kingdom.
For now, the EU is making noises about how much easier trade could be in the post-Brexit timeframe if the UK and Northern Ireland would simply give up and allow the EU to annex Northern Ireland. And to uninformed people it could pass as a plan to streamline Brexit negotiations and was probably designed to appeal to low-ambition politicians and uninformed UK citizens who might be tempted to agree to such a (treasonous) plan.
Were the situation reversed, of course the UK would try the same stunt. But the people of Northern Ireland have 477 years of history with the United Kingdom and (thankfully!) it appears they want to continue as an important part of the country.
Therefore, whatever it takes to rebuff the EU position on Northern Ireland, and whatever it takes to rebuff the Republic of Ireland’s position on Northern Ireland — it must be done, with no shirking nor excuses.
A Modest Proposal
Perhaps, instead of skillful EU negotiators maneuvering the UK into a situation contrived to make the UK the bad guy in all of this (keeping in mind it is unseemly to suggest Northern Ireland should leave the UK for the sake of EU convenience in the first place!) a helpful proposal could steer both sides towards a mutually beneficial agreement, thereby avoiding any unpleasant diplomatic scenes. Which would only serve to poison relations between the two blocs for decades.
As Erwin Rommel said; “Don’t fight a battle if you don’t gain anything by winning.” Fighting over Northern Ireland would cost both sides plenty, therefore, it’s silly to fight when the losses would counter the gains.
Rather than UK Prime Minister Theresa May being maneuvered into a situation loaded with bad optics, she should offer a plan that respects Rommel’s brilliant thinking and create an agreement that works for both blocs.
A One-Sided Border
On the UK side of the border
- The UK side of the Irish border should be free of manned border crossings.
- Signposts should inform travelers they are crossing into the United Kingdom and are expected to abide by the country’s laws and regulations for as long as they remain in Northern Ireland or any other part of the UK.
- Cameras and other technology could be deployed throughout Northern Ireland — especially near border areas — near roads, rail lines, airports, seaports, and in agricultural areas far from normal transportation corridors.
- A 1000 ft wide strip of land (on the UK side of the Irish border) should be cleared of trees, homes, buildings, large boulders and other landmarks along the entire 310 mile border, and be planted with low height crops to make it easier to catch (potentially) hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants crossing into Northern Ireland for whatever purpose, whether innocent or malign. Sophisticated audio-visual and thermal equipment — complete with face-recognition technology to identify everyone crossing the pastoral land between the two blocs — should be mounted atop wind turbines or other large poles at half mile intervals within that 1000 ft wide strip to see everything and everyone who crosses.
On the EU side of the Irish border
- Normal border stations on all road, railway, airports and seaports.
Information Sharing and Infrastructure Notes
Information sharing between the two sides would help both sides alleviate concerns about illegal crossers from either side, while helping to defray surveillance costs for both blocs.
The UK should build robust border crossing infrastructure (complete with the gate left in the ‘open’ position) but leave the buildings unmanned — except during extreme weather events or in the case of civil emergencies in either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.
Also, if tens of thousands of migrants or refugees began streaming into Northern Ireland every week, those pre-built (and ready to use within minutes) border stations could be put to good use, offering an official location to verify the identity of new arrivals and to issue instant and legal UK documentation of some sort (that could be time-limited or have other conditions assigned to it) to help speed the migrants on their way.
It’s in the interests of all sides to agree a ‘Soft/Hard Border’ plan where one side has an open but heavily monitored 1000 ft wide buffer zone complete with border stations that could be put into service whenever required — and the other side to have regular border crossings that feature typical border crossing infrastructure.
It’s a way to protect citizens of both countries and helps to share the burdens of operating the only common land border between the two blocs. It’s a way that both the UK and the EU can move past the present awkward moment towards an ever-improving diplomatic and trade relationship.
Every remaining issue between the two blocs is less important than a silky smooth and useful (to both sides!) border arrangement.
Thanks to the dedication of thousands of people, the problems that plagued Northern Ireland for decades have all but disappeared. While we mourn those lost during ‘The Troubles’ we must move forward and provide the best possible future for the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The best way to continue to move forward is for a ‘soft’ border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland so that free movement of people and unimpeded trade may continue along the 310 mile border.
Many people on both sides of the border meet for tea, travel across the border to shop, or are employed on the other side of the border and it would be unfair to require these people to face a regular border crossing twice daily. And a hard border would hinder trade, which trade is a vital part of the local economy along both sides of the divide.
A dedicated ‘Commonwealth and Ireland’ line at UK ports of entry
The smartest thing the Home Office UK Visas and Immigration department could do is to create a separate queue line at all UK ports of entry and mark it “Commonwealth and Ireland” so that people from Commonwealth countries or from the Republic of Ireland have a dedicated and streamlined entry into Britain.
In this way, goods and people can move much more efficiently between those jurisdictions.
If it sounds like I want to favour people from Commonwealth nations, you’re right. If it sounds like I want to favour people from Northern Ireland who may decide to fly to Britain from points overseas, you’d be right.
Special Treatment at UK ports of entry: A ‘Nexus Card’ for frequent travelers between Ireland and any UK port of entry
Here in North America, citizens who cross the U.S. / Canada border can apply for a Nexus Card or an Enhanced Driver’s Licence — either of which dramatically speed border crossing times for holders of those cards — and not incidentally, lowers wait times for the people in the non-Nexus lineups because fewer people (or vehicles) are traveling in that particular queue.
Such a streamlined customs experience should be extended to all Republic of Ireland citizens as a courtesy — and to the government of the Republic of Ireland in exchange for their help in patrolling and securing the border with Northern Ireland.
The UK Government (UK.gov) Paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland
“The UK government pledges to protect the Belfast Agreement and Common Travel Area in new position paper published August 16, 2017.
The Government has today published a comprehensive paper which outlines the UK’s position on addressing the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the land border with Ireland.
The position paper — which has been published ahead of the August negotiating round — states that the Government will protect the Common Travel Area (CTA) and associated rights for UK and Irish citizens, and put upholding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement at the heart of its Exit negotiations.
The paper also puts forward proposals on avoiding a hard border on the movement of goods — making clear the UK’s position that there should be no physical infrastructure at the border — and plans to preserve the wide range of institutional cooperation between Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain including for the energy market.” — From the UK.gov website
Trade Between the UK and the Republic of Ireland
Billions of pounds sterling in trade cross between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and a significant amount of it is spent in the small and medium-sized business (SME) trade. Keeping the border open, yet enhancing security will be a challenge for both the UK and the Republic of Ireland, but with good will and some visionary thinking it shouldn’t be too difficult to get an agreement that benefits the largest number of people.
A Soft Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is in everyone’s interest
For as long as the Republic of Ireland remains a member of the European Union it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep the soft border arrangement and to work together to enhance security on both sides of that soft border by any reasonable means.
If that means having facial recognition technology and vehicle license plate readers at all government buildings and properties, ferry terminals and international airports in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it’s a small price to pay to preserve and enhance security for the EU, for the Republic of Ireland, and the UK including Northern Ireland.
The soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland must work for citizens of each country, for small (and large) business, and it must ensure a high level of security for both the UK and the EU. This is one Brexit negotiation that must succeed for the benefit of all.