Compromises always involve discomfort. In a typical negotiation, both sides can arrive at a compromise on the understanding that, for each of them, the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. It is the political and economic fragility of Northern Ireland that has made compromise between the UK and the EU, in the withdrawal agreement, necessary in the first place. Yet under Boris Johnson’s proposals for the Irish border, the discomfort caused by the compromise would be borne almost exclusively by this small region. As they currently stand, his plans indicate a British government more willing to compromise Northern Ireland than it is to compromise over Brexit.
What Johnson has offered the European commission is unexpected: instead of an invidious choice between a hard border on the Irish Sea or one across the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland shall have both. The rub is that Johnson is handing the responsibility for this decision now to the EU – as if the effects of such borders (either with a deal or no deal) will be primarily Ireland’s problem and not one for the whole UK. His proposal persists with the illusion that Britain can have a cost-free Brexit, now enabled by putting the burden of managing the consequences on to the island of Ireland.
This is clear from the two main dimensions of these proposals. First, regulatory alignment. Although Johnson claims that these proposals remove the so-called backstop, the most substantive part of it endures – and with bells on. Northern Ireland would effectively remain part of the EU’s single market for “all goods”. The critical difference between this and the backstop, however, is that it is not conditional. Northern Ireland shall be in a different regulatory zone to Britain regardless of the type of UK-EU relationship that is meant to be devised, miraculously quickly, by the end of the transition period.
Second, the greatest and most immediate difficulty comes in the ratcheting up of the status of the Irish border into a customs border. Theresa May promised “no return to the borders of the past” on the island of Ireland. One border of the past that many people here remember vividly was a customs border. They remember the paperwork, the inconvenience, the delays, the targeting of customs officers. What they remember less is how the economy was transformed when the benefits of being part of the EU’s customs union could be married with the benefits of peace. It is all too easy for that to be reversed. The harder the Brexit, the more severe the impact of a customs border will be. What Johnson proposes will not protect Northern Ireland from these effects – it will, in fact, exacerbate them.
The problem with the post-Brexit Irish border has always been managing the conundrum of avoiding making it a hard border (which would disrupt the conditions for peace, under the Good Friday agreement) while running it efficiently. Any customs border worth its salt needs to be managed well. You have to assure prospective partners for trade deals that negotiations are worth their while, because you don’t have leaky borders. You also need to assure local traders that their domestic market is protected against both smuggling and shoddy cheap imports, because the border is effective. If the Irish border is not run well – especially if the UK is determined on a hard Brexit – then smuggling not only becomes easier, it becomes more lucrative.
The customs procedures outlined in the UK government’s proposals are not extraordinary, but neither are they a convincing means of border management in this unique context. In fact, what Johnson is putting forward as mitigating measures are pretty familiar at this stage, having been broadly outlined as long ago as August 2017, in the UK government’s white papers on customs and on Northern Ireland.
They have worked elsewhere when they are used to help facilitate the movement of goods across a hard border. If there is no hard border, and no effective means of catching illegitimate operations, then the value and practicality of such measures dramatically decreases.
“Alternative arrangements” to the backstop could in theory work for a customs border. But these would need to be carefully designed and developed over time, with input from those affected, and supported by proper resources. At this stage, therefore, the arrangements proposed can offer little more than legal uncertainty for the EU and worrying disruption for cross-border traders.
In his letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, Johnson presents these proposals as, far from a final demand, “the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution”. Any proposal that would avoid costs to Britain while placing Northern Ireland’s future as collateral cannot be allowed to be the last word on the matter.
• Katy Hayward is reader in sociology at Queen’s University Belfast and author of Bordering on Brexit