As Brexit negotiations continue to drag on following the failure of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement to win over Parliament, one of the sources of the discord is the matter of what will happen to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit. As the Brexit date looms ever closer, the no-deal scenario is beginning to seem like a grim probability. Between the UK, the EU, and Ireland, nobody seems able to agree upon a viable solution.
What is the hard Irish border?
There has been plenty of arguing about the Irish backstop, which is a kind of safety net that would allow the Irish border to remain open if we didn’t have a Brexit deal. Without such a backstop, we would have to implement a hard Irish border. When the UK leaves the EU, the border between Ireland in the EU and Northern Ireland in the UK will be the only land border between the UK and the EU. Once the UK no longer follows EU regulations about freedom of trade and movement, there will be different rules for checking goods that cross the border between them. This will require new infrastructure around the border and inspections on goods and people crossing it. Since the peace process following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending the Troubles, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has been open. There isn’t any physical border or security checkpoints. This would change if a hard border was introduced. Most people do not want this, but many people also do not want a soft border. The backstop would create an invisible customs border between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. Government research has yet to find a working alternative to a hard border, as the technology-based checks that were proposed are not credible, according to a Brexit minister.
What does it have to do with the Good Friday Agreement?
Lots of people think that a hard Irish border would be going against the Good Friday Agreement. This 1998 peace treaty brokered the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, during which 3,500 people lost their lives between 1969 and 1997. The agreement led to improvements in working relationships between Ireland and Northern Ireland and all of Britain. If there was a hard Irish border, it could go back to the conditions of army barracks and watchtowers along the border. These were removed after the agreement to develop a more peaceful environment. New police patrols and border checks could threaten this peace and the stability of life for anybody living along the border. Adding restrictions would create new friction and bring back memories of the past struggles. Nobody wants it to seem as if the peace process is being undone. However, there are no explicit commitments in the Good Friday Agreement concerning customs posts along the border.
What is the UK saying about the Irish border?
The Prime Minister Theresa May agrees that there needs to be a backstop and that there should not be new infrastructure on the border. However, there is a red line preventing an agreement in which Northern Ireland ends up in a separate regulatory territory to the rest of the UK, which would be creating a border in the Irish sea. Britain needs to have a common rulebook with the EU. If we had matching standards for agriculture, foods, and other goods, then there would be no need for regulatory checks at the border. The VAT and customs declarations could be done electronically instead. The UK refuses to consider checks by EU customs officials or even British staff for imports and exports through British ports. May is yet to offer an acceptable alternative to a hard Irish border or a successful plan for a soft Irish border.
What is the EU saying about the Irish border?
The proposal from the EU is to create a special deal for Northern Ireland. It would create a “common regulatory area” between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK would not be happy with this and so will not agree to it. The EU has said that if the UK refuses this backstop, then they will be enforcing a hard border if Brexit goes ahead with no deal in place. This will result in major disruptions, as trade deals with all of the EU countries will need to be renegotiated. Hold-ups due to the necessary border checks could result in delays and supply problems, including shortages of food and medicine. No deal is the only option on the table other than cancelling Brexit altogether, or holding a second public referendum, if Parliament will not accept May’s withdrawal agreement proposals and the EU refuses to negotiate anymore.
What is Ireland saying about the Irish border?
Ireland thinks that a backstop is absolutely necessary to continue trade and peaceful daily life without friction after Brexit. It will be difficult for the UK to avoid the implementation of border checks and personnel manning the border if we leave the EU with no deal and the EU enforces the hard border. Irish businesses would likely have serious cost implications, especially any in the agriculture sector. However, Ireland would still have trade deals with the EU to benefit from. If the UK left with no deal, we would have nothing in place, and would find it difficult to negotiate new trade deals if we failed to resolve the problem of the Irish border. Ireland is hoping to keep a backstop.
What will happen if there is a hard Irish border?
While the UK and Ireland are both in a common travel area in the EU single market, there are no tariffs or restrictions on goods. Post-Brexit, they will be in different regulatory territories. The Irish border will become a physical frontier for the EU. Checks will become necessary to ensure that goods meet safety standards and import taxes have been paid. They are also necessary for the prevention of smuggling. Some things could be done online with the appropriate technology, but physical checks are unavoidable for things like food and livestock. The disorder of a no-deal Brexit and enforcement of a hard border would have a negative impact on the Irish economy. There are also concerns about a resurgence of violence from the IRA. The economic deterioration would also have a negative impact on consumers, who would have to spend more on goods if they were even able to get them because of limited availability due to the disruptions to production and importing and exporting goods between the UK and the EU. This could increase tensions.
What are the alternatives to a hard Irish border?
The only way we can avoid a hard Irish border is if the checks were carried out elsewhere. However, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, this would be very difficult to achieve both practically and politically. The DUP in Northern Ireland is refusing the idea of a backstop with it remaining in the customs regime with the Republic of Ireland, which would separate it from the rest of the UK. To avoid this and ensure the backstop, Theresa May proposed that the entire UK would remain in the EU customs union until a solution could be found to avoid the hard border. The UK Parliament is rejecting this, though, because it would defeat the point of trying to leave the EU. The EU might insist on creating the border in the EU instead, with border checks at ports such as Rotterdam and Calais. This could have a negative effect on the relationship with Ireland and trading opportunities with other countries.
Can we avoid a no-deal Brexit?
The UK will be leaving the EU at 11 pm on Friday 29th March. As this date approaches and Theresa May continues to fail to pass an agreement with Parliament or negotiate further with the EU, a no-deal Brexit is becoming increasingly likely. Our ability to avoid this depends on whether the EU or the UK will amend their positions and agree on different terms. This is not very likely at this point, though. The best we can probably hope for is that the UK proposes an extension to Article 50 and the EU agrees to it, so that we will have more time to work out a withdrawal agreement plan for Brexit.
Are there any preparations for a no-deal Brexit and a hard Irish border?
Without a withdrawal agreement or an extension, the UK will suddenly be out of the EU with no exit plan. Everything will change immediately from 11pm on 29th March 2019. Goods going from Britain to the EU will need to undergo regulatory checks and be subject to duty payments. The same will apply to goods coming from the EU into Britain, but not until the required infrastructure is in place. It is likely to slow down trade routes, especially between Dover and Calais, and may even cause flight delays at airports. If we leave the EU without a deal, the UK will have to declare this a “critical incident” and call a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee. Thousands of British civil servants have been working on plans for a no-deal scenario since the referendum in 2016. Here are some of the preparations for Brexit:
Lorry Traffic and Shipping Routes
One of the primary concerns is the lorry traffic via the English Channel. A plan named Operation Brock will come into effect for parking a number of trucks up to 13,000. With a government grant of £28.8 million, the county of Kent is improving Manston Airfield and the surrounding roads, including signs and traffic signals. These measures will hopefully prevent a shutdown in Kent, as there was during a Calais strike in 2015. The UK government still anticipates a reduction in access for up to 6 months for major lorry routes. They are also hoping to create new shipping routes in and out of the UK to prevent Dover and Folkestone from coming to a standstill. The Department of Transport is giving three ferry companies £107.7 million to operate more crossings on some of their shipping routes and ease the traffic elsewhere.
Food and Medicines
As you have probably seen in the news, manufacturers have already been stockpiling goods in the event of a supply crisis. The UK is self-sufficient when it comes to food up to about 60%, so there shouldn’t be a severe food crisis. However, in an attempt to avoid empty shelves due to disruptions in production and transport, some retailers are stockpiling imports, leading to a shortage of warehouse space. Consumers have concerns about the cost of goods increasing due to short supply. Retailers are also concerned about excess fresh food and livestock that can’t be exported from the UK in time due to hold-ups. The UK is very reliant on the EU for fresh produce, which is difficult to stockpile. There will likely be a reduction in variety and quality of products available in the UK after Brexit. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs is creating an EU Exit Emergencies Centre to handle no-deal situations around the clock. Meanwhile, the Department of Health has also been stockpiling prescription and pharmacy medicines. They have signed £10 million in contracts for the storage of thousands of pallets of medicine. They are working on plans to give medicines priority on freight routes and to air-freight medical items that have very short shelf-lives.
Borders and Fishing
HMRC is establishing a Border Delivery Group to prepare for immigration and customs changes at all entry points into the UK. The Border Force is also creating a Readiness Task Force of 300 officers and will recruit another 600 officers to staff the borders. In the event of a no-deal Brexit and the creation of a hard Irish border, the UK will have to send staff over to man the border. One of the controversial issues amongst the negotiations has been fishing rights. Without a deal, the UK is going to have to extensively patrol our fishing waters. The Marine Management Organization is due to pay £40 million in a 4-year contract beginning on the 1st April 2019. This will allow them to charter civilian vessels to aid in the patrol of fisheries and moving around the Exclusive Economic Zone throughout UK waters.
Protests and Crime
The chaos of a no-deal exit from the EU is likely to cause protests among the public. Senior officers in the police force think that there is a low risk of anger and disorder in most areas, but some forces are preventing officers from taking any leave during the first 3 weeks following Brexit. If we leave the EU without a deal, the police force will lose access to European criminal justice tools and systems. The National Crime Agency, which communicates with Europol and overseas forces, is recruiting almost 90 officers to use the Interpol system and other more labour-intensive methods instead. This is much less effective. The National Police Chiefs Council is also setting up an International Crime Co-ordination Centre as part of Operation Safety Net, which is intended to assist forces with international searches for people.