UK Politics

The EU is playing with fire on Northern Ireland

BY Ben Kelly | thescepticisle   /  1 March 2018

The EU continues to make the UK government pay for its lack of planning, policy and detailed ideas. In failing to submit its own draft withdrawal agreement, the government has made a strategic error and, once again, left a vacuum that only the EU can fill. Without any fleshed-out ideas or realistic proposals, the EU continues to put the UK onto the ropes in negotiations, and platitudinous speeches from ministers and the PM will do nothing to improve the situation.

However, remainers celebrating the EU as the voice of reason and praising its pragmatism should consider whether it was advisable to inflame hugely contentious issues such as Northern Ireland in an unnecessary and avoidable way. Yes, the UK has failed to provide solutions to the Irish border problem and, yes, the EU is simply moving to give the December joint report a legal basis, but by singling out Northern Ireland the EU is charging into Northern Irish constitutional issues in a dangerous manner.

This is not simply giving legal force to what the UK agreed to in the December deal. Read paragraph 49:

49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the allisland economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

What it says here is that the UK wants to avoid a hard Irish border as part of its overall trade agreement with the EU, but if this is not achieved the fallback option will be invoked which means the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union. That’s the UK as a whole will maintain “full alignment” with EU internal market and customs rules, which underpin trade across the Irish border. That’s what the UK government signed up to, and it’s a very important distinction indeed.

‎The Commission has made a terrible blunder by differentiating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in its draft document, changing the focus of the joint report to be specific to Northern Ireland for reasons which are beyond me. This isn’t pragmatism, it’s very clumsy politics which has created a great deal of anger and led to the whole proposal blowing up and being rejected immediately.

The last thing we need is more tensions in Northern Ireland. Certain Brexiteers are playing fast and loose with the Irish border issue and being dangerously dismissive of the Belfast Agreement, and they are being rightly condemned for it.

But the EU should not get a pass for what is either a deliberate attempt to heighten a potential constitutional crisis, or a stupid avoidable mistake.

Translating the fallback option agreed in December should simply been about detailing the scope of alignment necessary and should apply to the UK as a whole. Keeping in mind that this option only applies in the absence of a proper agreement being reached in negotiations, which is the aim of the UK government, albeit not yet fully detailed.

Instead, the EU proposed the establishment of a “common regulatory area” between Northern and Ireland and the Republic or Ireland, covering customs, agriculture, VAT, energy, environment and much more. Essentially it meant keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market and Customs Union, separating it legally and constitutionally from the UK. There be dragons…

The fact remains, if the Commission has simply said that the fallback option applied to the whole UK – as agreed in December – an ugly row could have been avoided.

Still, it is now down to the government to set out its own plans for an alternative option to ‘option C’, and the time for vagueness has passed.