Ireland chaos: Brexit will either break May now or it'll break her later

Theresa May has a relatively good chance of moving onto the second phase of negotiations this week. Jean Claude Juncker said as much during his press conference with her today. But even if she manages it, it'll be by making concessions which ultimately destroy her - just as surely as she would be destroyed by not making them. It could happen now. Or it could happen later. But it'll happen. There is no escape route.

The problem is of her own making. In October last year, she promised to leave the single market and customs union. She should not have done this. She was fresh in her premiership and strong in the polls. That was the time to face down the impossible demands of the hard right of her party.

Instead, she rashly promised an extreme Brexit. This meant there would be a border in Ireland. It is impossible to avoid this once you're outside the single market and customs union. You need to check that goods and services are of the required regulatory standard, that the correct tariffs have been paid and that products originated where they say they have.

Brexiters largely pretended this problem did not exist, but problems do not disappear because you close your eyes. They remain there.

Today, May finally opened her eyes and found that the problem had been sat there all along, waiting for her to pay attention. Reports suggest the UK government is prepared to accept "regulatory alignment" between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland "in the absence of agreed solutions".

Political leaders in Scotland, Wales and London have seized on this as a way of trying to carve out their territory from the rest of the UK, allowing them to stay in the single market and customs union. But they are premature. The promise only stands if no solution is found. That allows us to get onto future trade talks, with the Irish border problem destroying the project slightly later on. 

But ultimately, that is just a questioning of timing. It does not change what will happen, just when it happens. Despite all the months of David Davis chuntering on about 'creative' and 'high-tech' solutions to the Irish issue, none exist. Even this regulatory alignment solution doesn't add up to it. Sure, you can promise to have the same standards as the EU, but you will still need to check goods for tariffs and country of origin. Trade agreements can make that process much easier, but they won't eradicate it altogether.

Even that is getting ahead of ourselves. Well before then, May's regulatory promise will tear her apart at home. Her first problem is Arlene Foster, who recognises what the implications are. After all, if Northern Ireland and Ireland are aligned, then the actual non-aligned border will be in the Irish sea. It therefore follows that we are witnessing the end of the United Kingdom as a unified trading entity and the requirement of border infastructure between the mainland and Northern Ireland. The DUP won't stand for that and would happily take away their crucial support for the government over it.

That would leave May only one option, which is to extend the regulatory alignment from Northern Ireland across all of the UK. That means we would either stay in the single market and customs union or - much more likely - promise to stay signed up to all the EU rules into the future, as Cabinet wets like Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd want. But if she does that, the hard Brexiter lunatics on the front bench, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, will join forces with those outside it, like Iain Duncan Smith, and bring her down.

May has three choices, all of which break her. If she insists on a border in Ireland, the talks break down and she is finished. If she insists on a border in the Irish sea, the DUP pull the plug on her parliamentary deal and she is finished. If she accepts regulatory alignment for the whole of the UK, the Cabinet hawks revolt and she is finished. Whatever happens, it's hard to see how she survives. 

May might be able to squeak through this week. That line - "in the absence of agreed solutions" - might just defer judgement day on the Irish problem until some point in the future. But the problem will not go away, any more than it would go away after she originally made her conference speech. The dynamics of the Brexit process make survival impossible. Her best chance was right at the start, where a commitment to soft Brexit could have sidestepped the problems she'd face down the road. Instead, she threw in her lot with the hard right of her party. And that sealed her fate.

Ian Dunt is the editor of The new edition of his book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is out now.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Irish border: Nationalist Brexit rhetoric gets ugly

This is the standard operating procedure for Brexit: Ignorance, followed by ineptitude, followed by nationalism. And so it is with Ireland.

From the moment Theresa May decided to leave the single market and customs union, it was clear this was going to be a problem. The island of Ireland contains the UK's only land border with the EU, so outside of French checkpoints it was going to be a focal point for problems. But unlike French checkpoints, these border positions are heavy with political consequence. Any visible border infrastructure could be interpreted as a de-facto worsening of partition.

These problems were raised with ministers in those early heady days of the Theresa May administration, but she and her government seemed completely ignorant of the economic hit the Republic of Ireland was facing.

Ireland has two problems. The first is being disconnected from the British market, which buys £13bn in goods from it each year, including 42% of its exported food and drink. The second is that the UK stands between Ireland and the European market, which is worth £40bn.

Eighty per cent of the Irish road freight going into Europe goes through the UK. There is simply no other effective route. Ferrying straight into France takes twice as long, which is particularly problematic when many of the exports are food products. So the Irish are caught in Britain's gravitational field.

Even without tariffs, the bureaucracy of border checks is a massive issue. Road delivery would face four customs checks - two at departure and arrival into the UK and two again on the other side. Food products are also likely to require veterinary controls in addition to the customs orders. At the moment Dublin doesn't have the infrastructure for any of this. The port was set up with the expectation of free movement of goods and people.

Ministers largely ignored this issue in the days before Article 50. David Davis, incredibly, seemed not to know that Ireland was a different state. He repeatedly referred to an "internal" UK border in a Sky interview shortly after taking the Brexit secretary role.

Britain's decision to leave the single market and customs union means goods have to be checked at the border to see that they satisfy the domestic regulations of either side. They must also be checked to see that they are paying the correct tariffs and assessed for their country-of-origin to make sure a third country is not shifting them into the customs union under the cover of a trade arrangement with someone else.

There is really only one easy way to stop this, which is to stay in the single market and customs union. Britain has decided not to do this.

So instead the Brexiters have invented another solution, which is to unilaterally pledge not to enforce the border. This supposedly does whatever is in the UK's power to avoid the problem and shifts the moral responsibility onto the EU and the Republic.

Even in the context of Brexit, where lots of very silly ideas are treated as if they are credible, it is unspeakably foolish.

Let's say that in the near future Britain decides to become a low-tax, low-regulation economy, as people like Liam Fox and others have threatened. We might radically lower the standards for recycling in food packaging, for instance, or allow hormone-injected beef from the US into our market. The Brexiters are now effectively demanding that the EU promises not to conduct any checks on this huge gaping border into its territory. It can do nothing to stop those products, which are illegal in the EU, from entering its market. And once in Ireland, they can go anywhere in Europe without being checked. It would have effectively given up being able to assert standards in its economy.

This solution would also make trade deals almost meaningless. The EU has just ratified a deal on goods with Canada. Now let's say the UK does a deal on goods with the US. The US can send tariff-free goods to the UK. And from there they can cross into Ireland without checks. And from Ireland they can get into the rest of the EU. The US now has a de-facto trade deal with the EU and it didn't even need to negotiate anything or make any reciprocal concessions. Having an open border allows the UK to undercut EU trade deals whenever it likes. No customs union would allow this. 

The Brexiters are effectively asking the EU to give up its territorial integrity. Nothing less. It is quite extraordinary seeing what they demand of others when they themselves seem to treat even the slightest infringement of their sovereignty as a sleight of Biblical proportions.

In a healthy political culture, this would be a moment for reappraisal. The warnings about the Irish border were made, branded scare-mongering and are now coming to pass. Brexiters have shown no basic understanding of the issue and their suggestions for how to overcome it are almost comedic in their absurdity. But instead, it is triggering a toxification of rhetoric, into something truly ugly.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, a Brexiter who is generally civilised and internationally-minded, recently called Ireland "the other side". The Sun told the Irish prime minister to "shut his gob". Ukip MEP Gerard Batten called Ireland "a tiny country that relies on UK for its existence" before suggesting we threaten to revoke the common travel area. Labour MP Kate Hoey echoed Donald Trump's rhetoric when she told the Today programme: "They'll have to pay for [the border]."

Each day, as the repercussions of their actions become clear, the Brexiters lash out at their perceived enemies. They cannot blame themselves, so they blame those who warned them not to do it in the first place. When it is journalists, MPs and judges, it is tolerable. But now that anger is directed at a close ally, and one to whom we are bound by the shame of historic violence. Their lunacy threatens to unstitch some of the most delicate and important diplomatic work our governments have ever conducted.

Ian Dunt is the editor of The new edition of his book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is out now.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

David Davis refused to meet Brits in Europe 'countless times'

The government had a very specific reason for not guaranteeing EU citizens rights ahead of Brexit talks. They insisted it was about hard-headed negotiation. If they unilaterally guaranteed EU citizens' rights in the UK, they would be risking the rights of UK citizens in the EU. They didn't want to do this, they insisted, but they had to - so they could protect the interests of Brits abroad.

That was the rhetoric. But peel it back and the reality is very different. While the EU may not be perfect, it has at least met with British citizens resident in European countries to hear their concerns. David Davis, on the other hand, hasn't even done so once.

British in Europe, which represents UK citizens on the continent, says it has issued "countless" requests to meet with the secretary of state, none of which have been accepted. They've met with Brandon Lewis, immigration minister, Robin Walker, parliamentary under secretary at the Brexit department, and David Jones, junior minister. But they've never been able to meet the man supposedly fighting for their interests in talks with Barnier. This is despite the fact that Brexit-supporting columnists regularly brag about their long phone calls with Davis.

The organisation wrote to Theresa May on the evening of her Florence speech asking to meet her and Davis. No luck. They contacted the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) several times. No luck, on any occasion. They tried to go through ambassadors and use side channels in Berlin and Luxembourg. No luck.

Michel Barnier is another story. Although he supposedly represents a threat to their interests, has met them twice: once on March 28th and again last Tuesday. They expect to meet him again early next year. But they have not been allowed to meet Davis.

That's a shame because Davis should hear their concerns if he is to represent their interests in negotiations, especially now that talks might just have a chance of moving onto phase two. The window of opportunity for them to talk to Davis and communicate their concerns is closing rapidly.

One of their concerns is that Brits in Europe seem set to lose their freedom of movement. Those who want to stay only in their current country of residence will be fine, as will, in all likelihood, those who can show they regularly travel to one other specific country to work. But those who supply services across borders are in serious trouble. That includes wealthy people like bankers and lawyers, but it also includes many on modest incomes: ski instructors, people running catering businesses, struggling young musicians, that type of thing. Without free movement, they're out of a job.

It's not clear if anything can be done about this. But it would have certainly helped if they'd felt that the secretary of state had their corner. Instead, it is up to the citizens themselves to show the kind of solidarity ministers do not seem capable of.

One of the most emotionally reassuring sights in post-Brexit politics is the close cooperation between British in Europe and the 3 Million, which represents EU citizens in the UK. "We do most of the political meetings and a lot of mass lobbies with them," one person at the group tells me. "Our strategy is that we refuse to be played off against each other - which is precisely what both the UK and EU are doing even though they claim not to."

While their governments pitted them against each other,  citizens themselves worked together to advance their mutual interests. It's a very pleasant thing to notice and a reminder of how people are usually much more morally sophisticated than the ministers who represent them. Davis could have learned a lot, if he'd bothered to meet them.

A DExEU spokesperson said:

"Safeguarding the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and UK nationals in the EU, is our first priority in the negotiations. A range of ministers, including Robin Walker and Brandon Lewis, have met with the British in Europe group as well as high ranking officials from DExEU and Home Office. These meetings are part of our continued engagement with relevant groups as we negotiate our exit from the EU."

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