The last time I was on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a garage owner bet me I would have to cross without noticing. He won.
But now, the UK leaves the EU, all that could change, and the border has become one of the most difficult and the most controversial parts of the “brexit” negotiations, because:
The Republic of Ireland will not accept the opening of the border with Northern Ireland if this means that he must establish a boundary between itself and the rest of the EU
Northern Ireland and the government of the united KINGDOM does not accept the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the united KINGDOM, they remain, despite everything, a single country
Northern Ireland and the Republic don’t want a “hard” border between them on any account; they are after all committed to the peace process.
It is both a political and economic issue: 30% of Northern Ireland’s exports go to the Republic, and a third of that is food and animal exports.
In total, 55% of Northern Ireland’s exports go to the EU, including the Republic. In the opposite direction, 13% of the Republic’s exports go to the UK, its second-largest market after the united states. Invisible and without friction border?
The solution proposed on Monday to keep the borders open and trade has called for “regulatory harmonization”; a choice of words which is almost as opaque as the border.
This means (or could mean) that the same rules and regulations continues on both sides of the border Irish, so that trade may proceed without hindrance. Yet, even this compromise probably could not ensure an invisible border.
Norway is in the Single Market, is a member of Schengen (allowing for the free movement of citizens between countries), but is not in the EU Customs Union. Its land borders with the EU is fairly open, but he still has control points.
Brexit: What is regulatory harmonization?
Reality check: the boundary arguments
It is a moot point for the moment, as yesterday, the compromise was rejected by the DUP, the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland. The DUP is concerned that “regulatory harmonization” refers to the various laws, and the rest of the united KINGDOM. For them, it is totally unacceptable, but the consequences go much wider and more far.
Already in Wales, Scotland and London have jumped on this band wagon and called to be included in the “harmonization of regulation”, to protect their economies from what they see as the shocks of brexit.
No country can have a puzzle of different rules and laws applied city-by-city or a street-by-street. So, the obvious answer is that if there is “regulatory harmonization” between NI and Ireland, surely it must also exist between the UK and the EU? Not really a “brexit”?
However, if the united KINGDOM follows the same rules and regulations as the rest of the EU, have we really left? For a start, the negotiation of free trade agreements with the rest of the world is going to be difficult. It would have to offer if it has been sticking so closely to the EU?
If the EU insists that the UK remains faithful to its food standards, chemical regulations, car safety rules and all the rest, then what are the economic benefits of leaving? For many Brexiteers the whole point was to cut the UK free of the EU “red tape” and become a free-trade and free market economy, transactions with the rest of the world. “Regulatory harmonization” might choke many of these hopes in the birth.
Another model promoted by No 10 could be the limit of “regulatory harmonization” to the areas necessary for the support of the good Friday Agreement, which includes provisions for cooperation on issues such as agriculture, waterways and energy.
There is already an electricity market on the island of Ireland, but it is difficult to see how the coordination of the agricultural policy would not be in contradiction with the fact that Northern Ireland will be outside of the EU the Common Agricultural Policy, and Ireland inside. In the world?
The UK could reduce its customs duties to encourage trade, but this would stop these imports in the united KINGDOM, which flows into the EU via Ireland to the North? What to do if the united KINGDOM, at the bottom of the American chicken that has been washed in chlorine, which is not accepted in the EU, or cuts to all tariffs on the cars – would they disappear over the border into the single market? Certainly the opportunities for smuggling and crime across the border would be huge.
And then there’s the Common Agricultural Policy. All EU farmers get the same subsidies and applies the same standards and the protection of the european UNION to its agricultural sector in the common customs duties and quotas, for example, lamb from New Zealand or australia sugar.
If the united KINGDOM and, especially, NOR change the standards of agro-chemicals, or to allow more imports from the rest of the world at low or zero tariffs, it could all flow through the border of Ireland and the rest of the EU. The EU will not stand for sub-listing of the farmers of the EU, making a mockery of the common customs duties and undermine the CAP.
One suggested solution is that the technology will cope with this problem, and we should all stop worrying. The verification of the goods at the factory gate rather than at the border, the recognition of plates, the large companies regulations and a dozen other ideas will all come together to create transparent, the border is invisible on the ground.
Any minor issues such as organized smuggling of fuel can be dealt with by the local police and will anyway be a minor inconvenience. But it is far from clear that the Republic and the rest of the EU will believe that it is enough to guarantee their external borders, even if it works seamlessly.
Also, if, as many Brexiteers want to, we leave the EU and depend only of the World Trade Organization, the rules of the united KINGDOM would have a problem. The WTO allows its members to reduce their tariffs to an agreed-to cap or lower, but only if they offer the same thing for all the members. If the united KINGDOM allowed the passage of goods between Ireland, the EU and NOR the absence of control, inspection and / or tariffs, the rest of the members of the WTO could say that Ireland and, by extension, the EU are getting a better deal than what they are. They could then insist that the united KINGDOM will apply the rules at the border, the rate reductions for them at the same level, or to exercise or to demand compensation.
There are those who argue that we should reduce all tariffs and quotas to zero on a unilateral basis in all countries of the world, although even his supporters have said that would have enormous effects on the united KINGDOM, the agriculture and manufacturing industries. This is not necessarily a solution to the border problem, ultra-cheap imports into the united KINGDOM of steel, steaks, salmon, and sewing machines, able to cross the border and undermine the Irish producers. What can be done?
There are five possible solutions.
1. Ireland leaves the EU and joins the united KINGDOM is not going to happen
2. Northern Ireland left the united KINGDOM and unites with Ireland – not going to happen
3. The united KINGDOM leaves the EU, but remains in the Single Market, the Customs Union, and probably the Common Agricultural Policy – already rejected by the government of the united KINGDOM
4. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, rejected by all sides.
5. The squaring of the circle. Over the next few months and years of negotiations and transition, a compromise position, including the technology, of the special exemptions and “regulatory harmonization” is hammered. Keeping the invisible border, while ensuring the sanctity of the Single Market and the unity of the united Kingdom.
Given the first four options are to varying degrees, unacceptable to the Irish government, the British government and the DUP, the bright money is still on the squaring of the circle.