In our last article, (“The Irish Question”, 25.11.17) we wrote that “the UK’s negotiations with the EU-27 have it seems hit a major stumbling block [over] trade across the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland”.
The week just ending has shown that this was something of an understatement. We saw the extraordinary sight of a British prime minister travelling to the EU to seal what she hoped was a deal, only to have to abandon her mission when it became clear that she did not have the ability to deliver on her commitments. We saw David Davis, the UK’s Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, being forced to admit in the recriminations that followed that his department had done almost no analysis of the consequences of the UK’s departure – despite claiming for months that they had a detailed dossier on the subject. And we saw the remaining authority of the UK government further damaged by briefings and counter-briefings, inconsistent claims and accusations of incompetence.
As the week ends it looks more possible that the EU and the UK will find a sufficient solution to allow the wider Brexit talks to progress. But – as well as yet another demonstration of the power of a deadline in forcing politicians to find agreement – it has been a reality check for those who still fondly believe that the UK holds a strong hand in the discussions with Brussels.
The root cause of the impasse over Ireland and Mrs May’s ignominious retreat on Monday from what she hoped would be an agreement with the EU is that the Irish issue is – as Westminster is at long last beginning to realise – genuinely difficult. It will not easily be solved by the traditional diplomatic tools of finesse and fudge.
There are four separate jurisdictions involved in the issue: Northern Ireland (NI), the Republic of Ireland (RoI), the rest of the UK (rUK) and the rest of the EU (rEU). In mathematical notation, where “=” means “has an open border with”, we had at the start of the week the following aspirations:
(1) UK ≠ rEU. This is the fundamental start of the problem. The UK has said it does not want, and as things stand at the moment the EU will anyway not concede, an open border between the UK and the rest of the EU, whatever the solution in Ireland.
(2) RoI = rEU. This is also fundamental; there is absolutely no willingness in either Dublin or Brussels to contemplate a border between the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU.
(3) NI = rUK. As Monday’s debacle showed – but as should have been predictable by all from the start – the DUP is implacably opposed to a border or indeed any (further) differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
(4) NI = RoI. Everyone (even the DUP) wants the freest border possible between NI and RoI.
And that is an impossible set – one simply cannot meet all 4 aspirations at the same time, either mathematically or diplomatically.
So one of the four has to give – there is no clever diplomatic formula or choice of words to get round this. But if (1) gives, then the UK has not left the EU, the May government will in all probability fall, and the country quite possibly becomes ungovernable as “the will of the people” is seen to be frustrated. If (2) gives then Ireland has to follow the UK out of the EU, which is currently unthinkable (though in fact in line with Ireland’s history and geography: they joined the EU with the UK in 1973 because to not do so was unfeasible, and the one thing that they cannot change in all this is their geographical position). And if (3) gives one cannot rule out a return to the Troubles and terrorism on the island of Ireland. And so with no solution on Monday, it looked as though it would be (4), the open border between Ulster and the Republic, that would be the one that gave.
We still think – writing before May returns to Brussels – that the most likely outcome is that it will be not (4) but (3) that gives; that is, Northern Ireland will be treated differently from the rest of the UK. The EU will simply not countenance conceding on either (1) or (2), and the choice for Brussels between forcing a concession on (3) and (4) is a no‑brainer; as we said in our previous essay, abandoning aspiration (3) and installing a border in the Irish Sea completely outsources the problem to London. And it is what they have privately expected and been working towards for months.
There are two observations to make about this. First, Northern Ireland is already in several ways semi-detached from the rest of the UK, whatever the DUP may believe or want. It is different both politically (different political parties and issues, and a role for Dublin in their internal affairs courtesy of the Good Friday Agreement which really is without too many parallels – one state having an official governance role in the conduct of another state’s internal politics) and socially (it feels very different from the rest of the UK, with different public bodies, different concerns, very different accents and dialects, different bank-notes and number-plates on the cars, and above all a different flag flying over half of it).
Secondly, the Unionists in Northern Ireland are skating on thin ice, with public sympathy for them in the rest of the UK limited. The number of people in the rest of the UK who have ever visited Northern Ireland is very small – a couple of percent at most – and there is little solidarity with or understanding of the Unionist cause on the British side of the Irish Sea. In a straight choice between “Keep NI and fail to agree with the EU” and “Agree a way forward with the EU and cast NI adrift”, mainland UK would very probably vote by a considerable margin for the latter. The DUP has no doubt reflected hard on the tone of the British press over the last few days and drawn its own conclusions.
But if we do end up with aspiration (3) being the one that gives, and border controls are established between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, we will have seen a momentous event: the imposition in peacetime (ie outside war or the resolution of the aftermath of war) of fundamental internal changes to a sovereign state (the UK) by a foreign power (the EU), against the first state’s wishes. We think the last time that happened in Europe was at Munich in 1938.
It is the very intractability of the Irish Question, and the scale of the consequences of the various possible resolutions of the issue, which has exposed the paucity of Theresa May’s policy of prevarication and trying to keep everyone onside with imprecise generalisations. There is no agreement in either the UK government or the wider Tory party about how to execute leaving the EU or even, more damningly, what the desired end position they are driving to is – not least because up to now (a full 18 months after the referendum decision) May has not dared to ask her colleagues or her party to discuss the matter for fear it will shatter what fragile unity there is.
With the exposure of her “fudge and prevaricate” policy, it is hard to see what May’s policy is any more, or whether in fact she even has one. Optimistic aspirations and pious platitudes about a harmonious future relationship with the EU are no substitute for having an agreed policy and a decided strategy on how to achieve it.
As Seneca observed 2,000 years ago “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”. And looking at May, the phrase “no wind is favourable” just about sums her current position up.
For the EU, it makes the negotiations more than usually difficult – they cannot have confidence in anything any British negotiators say, they must think twice before making any concessions to progress a deal because they do not know if what they are offered in exchange will be honoured, they struggle to agree anything because there is no competent government to agree it with.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission’s president whom May went to meet on Monday, is often accused in the British press of exaggerating difficulties and being anti-British, but he must have been both dismayed and angry at May’s collapse on Monday and the waste of his time (and risk of public embarrassment). For once he did well to stay civil and diplomatic in his comments and reaction.
Many in Britain still seem minded to blame the EU for the impasse: “If only they had been more willing to negotiate, more focused on finding solutions”. It is true the EU is a tough negotiator, and has also not exactly striven to find solutions to Britain’s problems. But they did not cause the problems, or ask for them. And the approach by various ministers in London over the last 18 months – “undiplomatic” would be a considerable euphemism – has hardened their hearts further. Few initiatives or concessions to solve the UK’s problems, either now or in the later stages of the discussions, will come from Brussels or Berlin.
It is not clear how the UK, in the past a country whose politics, while not particularly imaginative or visionary, have on the whole displayed pragmatism, competence and a degree of predictability, has reached the point where it is facing an existential crisis, entirely of its own making, entirely unnecessary and which could even threaten the integrity of the state, but where in neither the government nor the country at large is there any consensus on what to do let alone how to do it.
After a very bruising week, Mrs May urgently needs to show she is up to the task of managing the rest of the Brexit process.