Andy Storey – Ireland: The Hard Border, the EU, and Brexit

We have put Brexit on the back burner, but this time we have an article from across the border, from Ireland – well worth reading, which is also a commentary on EU policies.

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

The border between the Republic and Northern Ireland at Bridgend, Co Donegal

“If you like to push me on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it’s pretty obvious, you will have a hard Border”: this statement from European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas has set alarm bells ringing in Ireland.  Mr Schinas went on to say “we stand behind the Good Friday Agreement, but that’s what a no-deal scenario would entail.” (The Good Friday Agreement, by the way, says nothing at all about a border in Ireland, one way or the other).

Schinas’ point has subsequently been confirmed by chief EU Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier – if Northern Ireland leaves the single market then goods imported from there into the Republic simply have to be subject to border checks.

In fairness to Mr Schinas and Mr Barnier, these are nothing more than statements of the bleeding obvious.  If the UK does not retain regulatory alignment with the EU (which is what the now beleaguered backstop was intended to achieve), then there has to be a border between the EU and the non-EU country that the UK is about to become.  Otherwise, the whole point of a single market would be lost.

Kevin Doyle of the Irish Independent describes Mr Schinas’ intervention as “a devastating blow to the Government” and says “the EU now appears to be leaning on Dublin for concessions ahead of a final showdown with the UK”.

But what possible concessions can the government offer? It has only two real options: align our regulations with the UK to avert a hard border on the island of Ireland (which means a de facto exit from the EU), or stay aligned with the EU and build (as well as policing) the border controls that have to be in place at any frontier of the EU.

The only way out of that dilemma would have been for Northern Ireland to diverge from the rest of the UK and adhere closely to the EU system of regulations, and the chances of that happening now seem infinitesimal.

So what can the government do? It can hope that Europe continues to argue the Irish case, but when push comes to shove, whose interests will take precedence here? Would the EU be willing to prioritise Ireland’s concerns about our little border over its non-negotiable concern for the EU not to have an open door to trade (and, indeed, immigration) with a non-EU state? I think we know the answer to that.

We have a useful precedent to learn from here. During the early years of the Irish debt and austerity crisis, Irish people were obliged to repay the debts (that were not theirs) of European banks that had lent money to Irish banks. Economist Colm McCarthy has succinctly described what happened:

“the country was the victim of a straightforward stick-up, perpetrated by Jean-Claude Trichet’s European Central Bank in Frankfurt…  Trichet threatened two successive Irish governments with the withdrawal of liquidity support to the banking system in 2010 and 2011, unless the government paid numerous billions to unsecured and unguaranteed bondholders in bust banks which had already closed for keeps”.

McCarthy notes that this rip-off took place with, at the very least, the full knowledge of the German and French finance ministries, and he draws the following pithy conclusion:

“The lesson is straightforward. When important national interests are at stake in the European Union… it is unrealistic to expect the interests of small European member states to prevail, or even to be accorded any particular priority… Ireland got screwed by Trichet’s ECB, not because the continental Europeans hate Ireland, but because, in an emergency, it was small enough to screw”. It still is.

The satirical website Waterfordwhispersnews published a recent spoof story entitled ‘“EU Would Never Betray Us” Confirms Government Forgetting Bank Crash’.  The story ‘quotes’ a government spokesperson saying “the EU has no history of suddenly selling one of its member states down the river as [a] protective measure against themselves becoming part of an economically or politically damaging contagion”.

Getting back to the more serious side of all this, it is probably not especially helpful to think in terms of betrayal here: the dominant forces in the EU will simply do what they have to do to defend what they see as their interests.  The only ones who can feel betrayed are those naïve enough to have believed in the first place that European ‘solidarity’ was ever likely to trump those interests, not to mention the simple legal logic of what a single market has to involve, namely external borders

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