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A Hard Brexit Can Be Avoided — A Hard Border, However . . .

(Photo: TT News Agency/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/via Reuters)

Brexit negotiations have been carried off with real incompetence on the London side, which has tried to guarantee all the things that the European Union wants — gobs of cash, guarantees for EU citizens, and promise of no border in Ireland — while delaying all issues of priority to the United Kingdom, namely a defined trading relationship with the EU. Notably, the border issue in Ireland can’t even be guaranteed without knowing that trading relationship.

And it really is the Irish issue on which both sides are failing to follow their premises to an obvious conclusion.

The EU has said it is committed to keeping the four freedoms of the EU indivisible. By this it means that only member states, or those subjected to all the rules set by member states, can enjoy any of the following: the free movement of goods, services, capital, and persons.

Theresa May has said the U.K. is committed to exiting the customs union to gain the freedom to make trade deals around the world and taking full sovereign control over its immigration policy. Further, she will not allow Northern Ireland to be governed by the EU rules on account of its geographic position on the island of Ireland, as it would mean partially breaking up the Union of Northern Ireland with Great Britain. Also, her Northern-Irish coalition partners would not allow this.

Each side has played this as if the other will give up on one of its main premises in the end. The U.K. thinks it can get a free trade deal close enough to existing arrangements that small technical adjustments can be made at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The EU thinks it can use the promise of no border to bounce the U.K. into the European Economic Area, or to halt Brexit altogether.

There has been some talk of a patchwork situation that would extend the stalemate between these two positions, called a “backstop” that would keep either Northern Ireland or the entire United Kingdom under EU rules for an extended period while trading relationships are worked out.

Well, guess what. Neither side is backing down. And I’d bet anything the promise both sides are willing to break is the promise on the Irish border.

I wrote almost a year ago that “Ireland is wasting its time helping the EU shift blame for a future Irish calamity rather than working against one.” Nothing has changed my assessment. Unless there is some other hidden gambit at work, Ireland has bet everything on a strategy of siding with the EY in the hopes of bouncing the U.K. into the Norway option or in cancelling Brexit altogether. To that end, in recent weeks, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has launched “Operation Caution” in which he has instructed Irish ministers not to pick up the phones when their counterparts in the U.K. call, so as to avoid undue influence. It might as well be called “Operation La! La! La! We Can’t Hear You!”

Of course, what is so odd about all of this is that the Irish-border issue is what’s making a “No Deal” Brexit most likely, and a “No Deal” Brexit is the worst possible situation for Ireland, and would include a hard border. Ireland may suffer the most in the long run, because a fortified border may do real economic and political damage within Ireland and Northern Ireland, without significantly impressing London or Brussels as they negotiate their future relationship.

The sequencing of these negotiations has been bad. The inability of the U.K. Cabinet to unite behind a post-Brexit plan, and even discover where the EU is willing to bend, have all led to this moment. And a different kind of logic is taking over these negotiations now. The Irish-border issue has proved useless in the hands of both sides in getting the other to move off their main demands. Will anyone in a position to do something constructive care about it again?