Even if we cannot be sure of the final destination of Brexit, we can be sure that the border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK will take on greater significance as it becomes the external frontier of the EU.
The external borders of the EU have become increasingly fortified in recent times, primarily in response to the ‘migration crisis’. Indeed, the border lines between some member-states today have such physical fortification as would make Donald Trump proud.
Despite some of the more lurid anti-Brexit headlines, we can already be sure that this level of security and passport control will not be required on Ireland/UK borders after Brexit, thanks to the agreement to protect the Common Travel Area that has already been reached in principle by the teams of Davis and Barnier.
Yet the EU’s external border also has another layer of significance, of course: an economic one. If Brexit is an act of ‘reclaiming’ sovereignty, it centres on the right to determine the country’s own trade rules and relationships.
The UK has been at the heart of the development of the EU’s trading rules and relationships for 40 years: it understands the importance of such rules being clear and strictly enforced. Indeed, it has insisted that they be so as the EU has incorporated new members and arranged deals with neighbours such as Turkey and Ukraine.
Now the UK is moving to the other side of that frontier, there are major implications for the Irish border.
If the UK is stepping out of the EU in order to have its own trading terms, this de facto means that the UK/Ireland border is a customs border. And the UK government knows that customs controls are important for jurisdictions on both sides of that border: revenue collection, consumer protection, maintenance of product/food standards, prevention of market flooding, tackling smuggling…
If the UK doesn’t want to have an effectively-managed border, UK citizens and consumers should be quite indignant as to the risks that we will consequently be exposed to.
And so we arrive at the gritty problem that appears to have ground progress in the negotiations to a halt, even at this early stage: avoiding a hard Irish border. A hard Irish border means, in effect, very different rules applying on either side of the border and to goods/services/people transiting from one jurisdiction to the other.
You don’t avoid a hard border by having no visible means of controlling it – indeed, you merely make that hard border more attractive to those who would seek to exploit it for ill-gained profit.
Nor do you avoid a hard border by putting in systems to manage the border crossing away from the border; such systems entail resources, time, infrastructure, rules, bureaucracy, red tape that will quickly make a border harder to cross, and more tempting to smuggle over.
No, avoiding a hard border comes in the nature of the deal that you can negotiate. And for this, the first step is a political one, not an economic one. The minimal disruption to UK/EU (and therefore UK/Ireland and north/south) trade will come through minimal divergence between two.
The way of minimising those restrictions would be to ensure that Northern Ireland’s divergence from EU standards (such as it will be once outside the EU) will not occur in the areas that are of most significance for north-south trade. An ‘elastic Brexit’, if you will, could see the UK as a whole exiting the EU but with specific flexibilities for Northern Ireland as its point of direct connection to the EU.
This doesn’t automatically mean imposing barriers within the UK, and certainly not for trade from NI into GB. Instead, it employs the EU’s willingness for ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ vis-à-vis the Irish border in a way that, in the long term, best preserves the integrity of the United Kingdom’s market.
The strength and endurance of the United Kingdom lies not in rigid rhetoric but in its capacity for flexibility and pragmatism.
• Dr Katy Hayward is a political sociologist at Queen’s University with a particular focus on conflict