An interestingly witty speech from new Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. He seems to channel some inner Macron. His line, though, in discussing “the challenge of this generation” is interesting. See the full text here.
The media spin on the taioseach’s speech concentrated on his repetition of Michelle “mountain man” Barnier’s witty quip that “the clock is ticking.”
The taioseach went on to say that he does “…not want there to be an economic border on our island nor do I want one between Ireland and Britain.”
Disappointingly and rather unrealistically, he continued: “There are people who do want a border, a trade border between the United Kingdom and the European Union and therefore a border between Ireland and Britain and a border across this island. These are advocates of a so-called hard Brexit.”
This is the point at which Irish tribal politics intrude. The result of the BREXIT vote is that the border between the United Kingdom and Ireland will become more significant on 29th March 2019, when the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. How that border is defined, secured and policed is, to an extent, up to negotiations between the British and Irish governments, giving due regard to the uniquely close relationship between the United Kingdom and one of its former constituent Kingdoms.
The Irish government are hardly likely to forget that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that was formed by the Acts of Union of 1800 on the basis of the personal union of the kingdoms that had subsisted since 1542, continued until 1922. Nor that trade between the UK and Ireland (which is remarkably close to balance) amounted to about GBP£20billion per annum in both directions. That’s just hard goods. Take services in to account and the significance of the UK and Ireland as trading partners is even more pronounced.
12% of Irish physical imports come from the UK.
30% of Ireland’s physical exports are sent to the UK.
Shortly after the secession of Ireland from the Union in 1922, the two states agreed a unique and slightly eccentric “Common Travel Area”, implemented in 1923 to avoid the necessity of passports and customs controls between the two formerly united nations. The CTA’s enormously powerful expression of structural unity was sadly altered at the outbreak of the Second World War by Ireland’s shameful insistence on neutrality during that conflict.
However, following the reintroduction of the CTA in 1952, the uniquely non-binding and non-legislated agreement was reaffirmed by both UK and Irish governments in 2011. Both governments agreed to align their visa-free travel partners, develop “electronic border management systems”, engage in data sharing to combat the abuse of the CTA and work toward a “fully-common short stay visit visa.”
So, the taioseach has a problem. Being a canny politician, however, he is focused on making this problem someone else’s responsibility and, if it’s possible. to find some leverage to favour the cause of Irish nationalism as ever.
Mr Varadkar wittily suggested that the advocates of hard Brexit (a red herring in itself on the issues of British-Irish border requirements) had failed and would continue to fail to suggest arrangements for the border, suggesting that “solutions” such as an EU-UK customs union and a “deep Free Trade Agreement” with the EU under the auspices of EFTA could be discussed but that this needed to be initiated by the UK.
This seems profoundly misguided. The onus is, of course, on both the UK and Irish governments to sort out the UK:Irish border that will become so much more significant in March 2019. One solution might be for the imposition of UK border controls (on both travellers and products) on arrival at Irish ports and airports. Of course, that would be a bitter pill for Irish nationalism, so it is not likely to be a welcome suggestion. Another might be to install hi-tech passport and product customs and duty controls across the UK:Irish land border and (with sadness) introduce secondary controls between Northern Ireland and British movements.
It’s all possible. The Irish will have to be creative if they want to retain the benefits of the Common Travel Area and the enormous importance of the UK trade partnership which is so critical to Ireland’s exports. To suggest that this must await British suggestions is just an act of political misdirection and to hide behind the suggestion that in October the taioseach will just
“sit around the European Council table with 26 other Prime Ministers and… decide together whether sufficient progress has been made on three key issues to allow the Brexit negotiations to proceed to the next phase”
is a ridiculous abdication of responsibility. Those “three key issues” the EU would like to insist on are “citizens’ rights”, the “divorce settlement and the British:Irish land border. So not making progress on the British:Irish land border prior to the October review of progress on that issue is a sadly all-too-Irish non-solution. The other two issues will be solved and shelved respectively. The rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK will be accepted by the UK as long as those rights to remain are the exclusive subject of British law and not put under the remit of the ECJ and the “divorce” settlement will be shelved as it is impossible that Britain will accept that it will owe the EU a brass euro on 30th March 2019 so that hope for a budget-saving contribution from the UK will have to be jettisoned by the Brussels bureaucracy.
Mr Varadkar needs to think more creatively if he is to save his country from extraordinarily debilitating economic consequences. BREXIT is the cause, but not the obstacle to new structures and new solutions. The Irish should be the first to come forward with innovative solutions that could preserve the benefits that their nation has continued to accrue from their British partners since their secession from the Kingdom in 1922. The Common Travel Area, unlegislated, non-binding and highly successful should point the way for creative thinkers.