The last time I was on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a garage owner bet me that I would cross it without realizing it. He won.
But now the United Kingdom is leaving the EU, all that could change and the border has become one of the most difficult and controversial parts of the Brexit negotiations, because:
- The Republic of Ireland will not accept an opening a border with Northern Ireland if that means you have to establish a border between it and the rest of the EU
- Northern Ireland and the UK government will not accept a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. After all, they remain. a single country
- Northern Ireland and the Republic do not want a "hard" border between them in any account; they remain, after all, committed to the peace process.
This is a political and economic problem: 30% of exports from Northern Ireland go to the Republic, and one third of exports of food and animals.
In total, 55% of exports from Northern Ireland go to the EU, including the Republic. In the opposite direction, 1
An invisible and frictionless edge?
The solution proposed on Monday to keep the border open and for trade to flow, called for "regulatory alignment"; a choice of words that is almost as opaque as the edge.
It means (or could mean) that similar rules and regulations would continue on both sides of the Irish border, so that trade could continue unimpeded. However, even this compromise probably could not guarantee an invisible edge.
Norway is in the single market, is a member of Schengen (which allows free movement of citizens between countries), but is not in the EU Customs Union. Its land border with the EU is quite open, but it still has checkpoints.
- Brexit: What is regulatory alignment?
- Verification of reality: the border arguments
That is a moot point for the moment, as yesterday the compromise was vetoed by the DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland. The DUP is concerned that the "regulatory alignment" means different laws in NI from the rest of the United Kingdom. For them, this is totally unacceptable, but the consequences go much further.
Already Wales, Scotland and London have climbed into that band car and have called to be included in the "regulatory alignment", to protect their economies from what they see as the expected attacks of Brexit.
No country can have a puzzle of different rules and laws applied city by city or street by street. So, the obvious answer is that if there is a "regulatory alignment" between NI and Ireland, surely it should also exist between the whole UK and the EU?
Is not it really Brexit?
However, if the United Kingdom follows the same rules and regulations as the rest of the EU, have we really left it? For starters, negotiating free trade agreements with the rest of the world is going to be difficult. What would he have to offer if he stayed so close to the EU?
If the EU insists that the UK adhere to its food standards, chemical regulations, automobile safety rules and everything else, what are the economic benefits of leaving? For many Brexiteers, the objective was to free the United Kingdom from the "bureaucracy" of the EU and to become a free trade and free market economy, trading with the rest of the world. "Regulatory alignment" could strangle many of those hopes at birth.
Another model promoted by No 10 could be to limit "regulatory alignment" to those areas needed to support 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 agricultural policy would not clash with the fact that Northern Ireland will be outside the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, and Ireland within her.
Out of the world?
The United Kingdom could reduce its external tariffs to encourage trade, but what would prevent those imports into the United Kingdom from flowing into the EU through Northern Ireland? ? What if the United Kingdom allows cheap US chicken that has been washed with chlorine, is not accepted in the EU, or reduces all tariffs on cars, would disappear across the border in the single market? Certainly, the opportunities for smuggling and crime across that border would be enormous.
Then there is the Common Agricultural Policy. All farmers in the EU get the same subsidies and apply the same standards, and the EU protects its agricultural sector with external tariffs and common quotas, for example, on New Zealand lamb or sugar Australian.
If the United Kingdom and especially NI change standards in agrochemicals or allow more imports from the rest of the world with low or zero tariffs, everything could flow across the border into Ireland and the rest of the EU. The EU will not tolerate the undervaluing of EU farmers, mocking common external tariffs and undermining the CAP.
A suggested solution is that technology will take care of this problem and we should all stop worrying. Check products at the factory door instead of at the edge, recognition of the license plate number, larger companies that regulate themselves and a dozen other ideas will come together to create a seamless border that is invisible on the floor.
Any minor issue such as smuggling of organized fuel can be dealt with by the local police and will be a minor inconvenience anyway. But it is far from clear that the Republic and the rest of the EU will believe that this is enough to guarantee their external border, even if it works perfectly.
Also if, as many Brexiteers want, we leave the EU and only depend on the rules of the World Trade Organization, the United Kingdom would have a problem. The WTO allows any of its members to reduce tariffs to an agreed maximum or minimum, but only if they offer the same treatment to all members. If the United Kingdom allowed goods to cross between Ireland, the EU and NI without controls, inspections or tariffs, the rest of the WTO members could argue that Ireland and, by extension, the EU are getting better treatment than What are they. Then they could insist that the United Kingdom apply the rules at the border, cut tariffs for them to the same level or retaliate or seek compensation.
There are those who argue that we should simply reduce all tariffs and quotas to zero unilaterally for each country in the world, although even its supporters have said that this would have enormous effects on the agricultural and manufacturing industries of the United Kingdom. This is also not necessarily a solution to the border problem, the ultra-cheap imports into the UK of steel, fillets, salmon and sewing machines, could cross the border and undermine the Irish producers.
What can be done?
There are five possible solutions.
1. Ireland leaves the EU and rejoins the United Kingdom; it will not happen
2. Northern Ireland leaves the United Kingdom and joins with Ireland; it will not happen
3. The United Kingdom leaves the EU but remains in the Single Market, the Customs Union and probably the Common Agricultural Policy, already ruled out by the government of the United Kingdom
4. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – rejected on all sides.
5. Squaring the circle. In the coming months and years of negotiation and transition, a commitment position is established that includes technology, special exemptions and "regulatory alignment". Maintaining the invisible limit while ensuring the sanctity of the Single Market and the unity of the United Kingdom.
Given that the first four options are to varying degrees unacceptable to the Irish government, the British government and the DUP, smart money is still in the loop.