Madrid: In almost a year of stuttering negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom, one of the few points that both agree is on the need to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But at the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Friday, the EU27 reiterated that progress on the issue is now stalled — posing a serious threat to the prospect of any deal, meaning the UK could crash out of the 28 member bloc on March 29 next without any deal, the so-called “hard Brexit”.
At present, driving between the Republic into the British-governed province is no different than say, driving between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The road surface may slightly change. Roadside signs are bilingual in the South between English and Gaelic, while speed limits are shown in miles per hour in the North, rather than in kilometres as in the rest of Europe. There are no border checkpoints, barriers or any other impediments to traffic or people.
For three decades, sectarian and political strife in Northern Ireland between elements of a largely Protestant majority who wanted the province to remain part of the union of the United Kingdom, and a Roman Catholic minority who wanted it to become part of the Irish Republic of Ireland, claimed more than 3,600 lives and injured 36,000 more.
To prevent a return to that violence and to continue the economic prosperity enjoyed now on both sides of the seamless border, both EU and UK negotiators are determined that any Brexit deal protects that long-term peace as envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement that formally ended the conflict in 1998.
But the border remains the major hurdle.
The UK believes that the key to a border without customs, security or passport checks is a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.
The EU says that because the UK wants to leave the single market, the customs union and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), such a deal is unlikely. Brussels also believes that there isn’t enough time left to conclude such a deal — long after the agreed transition date ends in December 2020.
London has proposed two customs solutions to this: a partnership in which the UK would collect customs duties on behalf of the EU; and a maximum facilitation or “max fac” solution that would envision using technology, most of which hasn’t yet been developed, to prevent the need for physical checks.
The EU rejects both these proposals, saying the first would cost too much money — it estimates the cost of implementation now at €22.6 billion (Dh98.1 billion) annually; and the second as simply being unfeasible and wishful thinking.
So, enter the backstop clause.
Brussels has insisted that there can be no further talks on free trade or on the relationship of the UK with the EU unless London agrees to a “backstop” clause — a fall-back position that ensures no hard border between it and the Republic of Ireland.
Late last year and to break a logjam in talks, the London government agreed that in the absence of any other solution, Northern Ireland would remain in “full alignment” with the EU’s single market and customs union. (The single market allows for the free movement of goods, services and people across all 28 EU members; the customs union allows for the removal of customs checks across the EU28 but also including Norway, Lichtenstein and Iceland.)
Following last year’s general election in the UK, the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May relies on the support of the small Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to rule. The DUP is adamantly opposed to any deal that would single out Northern Ireland for special treatment, or would impose any checks between the province and the rest of the UK across the Irish Sea — hence the current UK dilemma over the Irish border.
London is proposing the UK remains in the customs union for a limited time — leaving the EU in March 2019, leaving the single market in December 2020, and leaving the customs union at some stage down the road.
But this presents a problem to hard-line Brexiteers who want out of the EU and an end to all ties as soon as possible. Besides, they argue, how can the UK make trade deals when it’s still in a customs union?
What’s more, both the EU and Ireland — which has a veto on any Brexit deal — are opposed to this staggered approach.
As far as the EU 27 is concerned, a backstop means just that. As far as the UK is concerned, that backstop is flexible — hence the current impasse in talks and the warning that any Brexit deal remains a long way off.