As Henry Farrell noted here on Monday, the Brexit talks are in real danger of collapse. Britain is eager to move on from the first phase of negotiations, so it can talk about its future commercial relationship in the European Union. But the Irish border has become an important point of friction. As I (along with Paul Taggart, Kai Oppermann, Sue Collard, Adrian Treacher and Alex Szczerbiak) argue in our research project "Responses to Brexit: elite perceptions in Germany, France, Poland and Ireland", Irish politicians do not accept that Brexit talks can progress without detailed solutions at the Irish border from Great Britain. And Britain has been reluctant to enter into those details.
Why the border is problematic
The problem is that the Republic of Ireland wants, essentially, a commercially open border with Northern Ireland, the part of the island still under British Rule. The two economies are closely intertwined. On Monday it seemed that Ireland could have won a large Brexit concession from the United Kingdom on the subject. Northern Ireland would have a "regulatory alignment" with the rules that cover the US. customs union and single market, which would eliminate the need for customs posts between the north and the republic.
On Monday morning, Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar thought that this was a done deal. By Monday night he was off the table. This is the deal that Ireland wants. But for many in Theresa May's own party and the DUP, a unionist party in Northern Ireland that campaigned for Brexit and defends the "British" Northern Ireland, which depends on getting support, is too much to swallow. .
The Irish border problem could very well break the Brexit talks. Ireland can veto Britain's progression to the next phase of the Brexit negotiations. The United States. strongly supports Ireland. Last weekend, the President of the European Council issued a strong statement: "Let me say very clearly: if the UK offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU"
Ireland knows that its economy and its politics are involved in the Brexit much more than those of other EU countries Member States. In particular, Brexit has potentially important consequences for the peace process in Northern Ireland. Ireland is an island; the serpentine border between the north and the republic does not follow natural borders, and although Great Britain and Ireland were both in the US, it has not really existed. Brexit could create a hard edge, blocking the free circulation of both people and goods. Ireland fears that a bad deal with Brexit could bring back border checkpoints, reminiscent of the violence of the problems.
Entangled, such as the Brexit negotiations, Great Britain, Ireland and the US. Everyone agrees on one thing. There can be no return to the old borders within Ireland. So, why is the Irish border now the biggest obstacle to the Brexit talks?
Britain has played the game of guilt
Talk to politicians in Dublin and you get the feeling that Britain has been lying about the issue of the Irish border. Dublin politicians fear that Britain has not been aware of the real risks that Brexit represents for the Irish peace process. Irish politicians have said that Britain is confused, sending contradictory messages and has "thrown Northern Ireland under a bus".
My interviews with Irish politicians suggest that two narratives from Britain have reinforced the perception that it is not serious to find a solution to the Irish border. First, Britain has argued that it does not want a difficult edge, but if the E.U. and Ireland wants to impose customs controls, that's their business. This "blame game" has been part of the policy of the British government at the Irish border, as this position paper shows:
[F] after our departure from the European Union, the UK Government will have the flexibility to determine its own border agreement for the purpose of movement of goods … The clear priority of the Government of the United Kingdom … is to avoid any return to a difficult border … The United Kingdom must reach an agreement with the EU in order to ensure that the Irish side of the land border, which is subject to the relevant EU The regulations are also as fluid and frictionless as possible.
The Irish politicians I interviewed are frustrated by what they see as attempts by Britain to try to blame Ireland or the EU for a difficult border, when it should simply provide detailed proposals to avoid it.
Technological solutions are unacceptable
The second British narrative is an insistence that a hard border is not a problem, because technical solutions are available. The government recommends that technology such as automatic plate number recognition, surveillance cameras, customs pre-authorization and spot checks can replace the need for physical infrastructure along the Irish border.
My interlocutors in Dublin consider a technological solution to a difficult limit universally unacceptable. The ruling Fine Gael party has insisted since at least last summer that a political, not technological, solution is necessary. Sinn Féin has rejected such proposals as "laughable" and warned that any physical infrastructure on the border could lead to widespread civil disobedience. Fianna Fáil, the second largest party in Ireland, which supports the minority government of Fine Gael, has made it clear that on any border with Northern Ireland, physical or electronic controls should be avoided. It is unlikely that the talks will go any further unless Great Britain takes these objections seriously.
What's next for the Brexit negotiations?
What do these findings tell us about the prospects for the Brexit negotiations? First, without sufficient details from Britain, it is unlikely that we will see progress. Ireland wants a "regulatory alignment" with Northern Ireland, which means that Northern Ireland could choose to follow the same E.U. rules about trade that the republic does, even if the rest of the United Kingdom does not. Britain's record suggests that it will now have to try to convince Dublin to accept a candy as a "digital border," or consider the regulatory alignment of the entire United Kingdom with the US. But Ireland and the EU27 insist that they see no reason to settle for less than Monday's agreement.
Second, Britain's record of negotiations shows that it is reluctant to enter into significant details, and without success when it does. The regulatory alignment of the rules is already a vague substitute for the stronger demand for "non-divergence" of the rules, which would mean that Northern Ireland would be bound, instead of choosing to reflect Irish customs and trade rules. And yet, this also upset both the DUP supporters and the Brexit supporters at the May party.
This is the main point of friction in the negotiations. For more than 18 months, Ireland requested specific and written details on the special status of Northern Ireland. The May government has been politically reluctant or unable to provide this kind of detail. Unless this changes, the Brexit talks are in real danger of collapsing in December of this year.
Neil Dooley is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex. He receives funds from the University of Sussex through the Research Development Fund.