The EU stops being soft with 10 Downing Street about Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street, returning to the House of Commons for the first Prime Minister Questions since the summer recess. September 6, 2017. (UK Government work, some rights reserved).

After the failed successive meetings about Brexit between the European Union and the British negotiation teams, the European Commission decided to stiffen its position. Last week EU’s executive arm issued a Press Release saying, “As it was a UK’s decision to leave the EU, it’s a UK’s responsibility to propose solutions…”. One of the most burning issues in this regard touching directly on peoples’ lives, is the future relations between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, with Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the United Kingdom.

Until 29 March 2019 the two parts of Ireland will both continue being members of the European Union and nothing will change. Until that date people, goods, services and capital will continue crossing the geographical border line on the island, without any check or control whatsoever. Exactly in the same manner as in the case between all EU member states. After Brexit though, the UK will automatically cease being a member of the EU and there has to be a new arrangement in the relations and the crossings of the borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Actually, this border line of 499 km will be the only land border between the EU and the UK.

A border line of 499 km

As things stand now it’s not at all certain what will happen on 30 March 2019. It’s eighteen months from now till then, and many may say there is enough time to find solutions. But for an issue like this, weighing so heavily on the lives of the Irish people on both sides of the border, it’s already too late. Anxiety is building quickly all over the island. London hasn’t made any proposals on this question, unless some wishful thinking is considered a serious argument.

Actually, the only concrete act the 10 Downing Street occupant has done so far in this direction was to base her Parliamentary majority on the votes of 10 right wing Anglophile Northern Ireland MPs, thereby enraging the rest of the local political groups. To be reminded, the civil war in Northern Ireland between the right wing Protestant Anglophiles and the left wing Nationalists has lasted for decades. It ended in April 1998 with the ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

Civil conflict looming again

The European Union helped Northern Ireland economically with specially designed programs. Then, the completely free interaction and communication between the two parts of the island did the rest, letting the steam of the civil conflict out. On top of that, the Republic of Ireland and the UK, both not being members of the Schengen Area, signed between them the ‘Common Travel Area’ agreement, making sure that the north and the south part of the island communicate in every possible way as if there is not such a thing as a border line.

This reality is now under threat. After Brexit, Northern Ireland as a part of the UK will exit the European Union, while the Irish Republic will remain a part of it. All of a sudden, the geographical border may again become a tough reality, with real check posts and custom control booths. Such an eventuality has already created political unrest and social anguish in Northern Ireland, threatening even a resurgence of violence and terrorism. This is something that nobody wants, but still both sides, London and Brussels, are not doing much to avoid. Of the two sides, the UK should be more anxious, because Northern Ireland is Britain’s problem not the EU’s.

An EU clarification

In view then of this dangerous deadlock, the European Commission published last week a paper clarifying its position. It says “Today’s paper states that the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ should continue to be protected and strengthened in all its parts after the United Kingdom‘s withdrawal from the European Union. The continuation of the ‘Common Travel Area’, which facilitates the interaction of people in Ireland and the UK, should also be recognized”.

From the 10 Downing Street side, all we have seen and heard so far about the Irish question, is just wishful thinking. The UK negotiators indirectly propose the continuation of the existing free arrangement, forgetting that Northern Ireland will not be a part of the EU as from 30 March 2019. The present arrangement can only persist under a full Customs Union between the UK and the EU. But this is a Herculean task to achieve in every respect, politically and economically.

Brussels lip service

On the Brussels side, the Commission’s paper may be seen as welcoming a perfect solution, but the reality is very different. Let’s follow the text. In a paragraph the Commission happily states that we must “aim to find flexible and imaginative solutions to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”. True, only the avoidance of a hard border can maintain peace and prosperity in Ireland. But the Commission sternly clarifies this cannot happen at the expense only of the EU, and the EU’s law and rules have to be respected. So it adds: “These solutions must respect the proper functioning of the internal market and the Customs Union, as well the integrity and effectiveness of the EU’s legal order. As it was the UK’s decision to leave the EU, it is the UK’s responsibility to propose solutions in this regard”.

Those last severe observations tell the whole gloomy story. The EU will not allow a ‘hole’ of 499 km in its Customs Union and internal market for the sake of Northern Ireland, and London better grasp that. It also says that this deadlock should have haunted the Brexiteers when they advertised ‘leave’ and obviously it didn’t. So it’s their task to come up with proposals, which would not entail any kind of bending of the EU rules and order. In short, Brussels now clarifies that the political problems the Brexiteers face vis-a-vis the Brits who voted ‘leave’ are to be solved and paid in full by those who choose to haul Britain away from Europe. This is an obvious change from the recent supportive stance of Continental Europe, towards the mounting problems of all kinds London has with Brexit.

 

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