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Border Wars

A young Brexit supporter carries a British flag in central London, England, December 9, 2018. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has finally made its proposal for an alternative to the Irish backstop, which I’ve discussed in several Brexit columns before.

Basically, the idea is to not have full customs posts on the border, which they think could be targets of paramilitary violence and destruction.

Instead, they’ll have customs centers miles away from the border, on both sides. (I’m imagining one near where my great grandfather lived, in Monaghan.) Frequent trade over the border would be handled by a kind of trusted trader scheme, and mostly monitored electronically.

There would be no customs border in the Irish Sea, on manufacturing and agrifoods. Northern Ireland would be out of the European Union’s custom’s union. But Northern Ireland would be part of an all-Ireland livestock regulatory zone, and Northern Ireland’s citizens must have some democratic input into the EU, according to the proposal. Boris Johnson has been quoting Ian Paisley, “Our people may be British, but our cows are Irish.”

With one month to go, this is a pretty large ask. It crosses several red lines set by the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, who is in a precarious position. Parliament has three times voted down a deal that met his conditions. Johnson has declared it dead. If no-deal Brexit were to be the actual result, the consequences for Ireland would be serious and the political fallout for Varadkar impossible to calculate. Backing down and accepting Johnson’s proposals will probably be used against him in an election by their current coalition partners, Fianna Fail. The whole strategy was to use the Irish border to bounce the United Kingdom into something like a permanent customs union with the EU. Worse for Varadkar, Irish political media exists within an ideological bubble that could fit safely into a Guardian comments section. In this environment, Brexit is still considered an inexplicable mental breakdown by their nearest neighbor, one that is so impractical it can probably never actually happen. But legally, it’s set to happen in one month. Is this the Brexit that can make it over the line in Brussels and Westminster?

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