John Downing: ‘A no-deal Brexit will mean a hard Border for us – but this is not betrayal by EU, it is simply unavoidable’

Once, when I was nervous about a new job, I took to brashly replying to people who asked how I was getting on. “They still haven’t found me out, you know,” I would say rather naively.

One day a much wiser man took me aside and offered: “They don’t often tell you immediately they have found you out, you know.”

Yes, it was food for thought and I toned things down considerably.

The incident came to mind late on Thursday night at an EU summit when Ireland realised a moment of Brexit truth.

In the same way as the authorities don’t always immediately tell you your bluff has been rumbled, neither do they immediately tell you when you are now on your own.

Speaking to German journalists in Brussels, Chancellor Angela Merkel said if there was a no-deal Brexit there would have to be a hard border in Ireland. “We’re trying to avoid that,” she said.

On Friday, diplomatic notes of summit proceedings published by the ‘Financial Times’ newspaper recorded Merkel as stressing the serious risks of a no-deal outcome, and the difficulties this would pose for maintaining an open border with Northern Ireland.

That summit record showed her calling on EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to explore a “fallback plan” to uphold the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland.

It was a reality check which told us Ireland is now fighting a major rearguard action to avoid a hard border with the North as the real risk of the UK crashing out of the EU continues.

A very difficult EU leaders’ summit on Brexit concluded by just delaying the prospect of the UK leaving without a deal for a fortnight, from this Friday, March 29 until Friday, April 12.

If, as seems likely, embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May loses a third vote on ratifying her deal at the Westminster parliament, the UK seriously risks leaving without any deal.

That outcome would wreak havoc with the Irish economy and put thousands of jobs at risk – but it would also raise serious questions about the EU’s need to protect its 27-state open market and control the Irish Border.

Details of fraught late-night deliberations by EU leaders emerged at the close of the two-day Brexit summit.

Brussels diplomats conceded it was really the first time the leaders confronted the prospect of a no-deal UK crash-out, including the need for efforts to keep the Border open, while protecting the North’s peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Asked about this at the summit’s end Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was aware of the situation which was ongoing. He said Ireland would meet obligations to uphold the integrity of the border-free EU single market and avoid the Republic becoming “a back door” for below-standard products, while also keeping the Border open.

Mr Varadkar said these were “difficult discussions” which were ongoing. But he also argued UK plans released last week for a no-deal Brexit scenario gave an insight into how these competing views of the world could be reconciled by giving the North special status.

“In a no-deal scenario, it’s the intention of the United Kingdom government to treat Northern Ireland differently, not to apply tariffs and not to apply the kind of enforcement measures that they would in other areas,” Mr Varadkar told reporters in Brussels.

“In many ways that is the supreme irony because a lot of those people who are opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement are opposed on the basis that in a few years’ time, if the backstop is triggered, Northern Ireland will be treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom,” the Taoiseach added.

But already, senior EU officials have said the UK approach to a no-deal Brexit breaks World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. The Brussels officials also note the UK itself has dubbed the arrangements as “temporary” and likely to last one year – the length of time a WTO challenge would take to process.

EU officials have long been loath to address what happens to the Border in a no-deal scenario. But privately senior Brussels diplomats are not optimistic. “When you have a border-free trade market across 27 countries, external borders have to be strong. In a no-deal Brexit, the Irish Border is a frontier between the European Union and the United Kingdom,” one senior official told the Irish Independent.

Some Irish people may choose to see this as some kind of betrayal of Ireland. But it is no such thing. It is simply the reality that the EU – with 460 million people across 27 nations from the Arctic Circle to Crete on the edge of North Africa – must protect the integrity of a simply wonderful creation: the single market and customs union.

To date, the EU leaders have shown Ireland tremendous solidarity. Last autumn Chancellor Merkel frankly told the Taoiseach that Ireland will very probably never again experience such support on any other issue. There are a number of reasons for this level of EU solidarity for Ireland.

The first is a genuine desire to support the North’s peace process in which Europe has heavily invested both politically and in terms of money. If the EU was to mean anything it had to play its part in ending murder on the streets of one of its member states, and by extension it now needs to avoid such horrors recurring.

We also have to acknowledge that our political leaders, and especially our diplomats, have performed very well in the Brexit negotiations.

The EU leaders also needed to show solidarity with a member state which was staying – not the one that was leaving. And they needed to take account of Ireland’s unique exposure economically and politically in the wake of Brexit.

The backstop is a great device which offers Ireland an insurance policy against a hard border.

But if there is a no-deal Brexit in the coming weeks, then all bets will be off. There will have to be a hard border; the talks will only be about where and how.

We have endured almost three years of stalemate and really tiresome cant on this issue since UK voters decided on June 23, 2016, to leave the European Union. But perhaps the only silver lining is that we are very close to the end.

The big problem is the total lack of understanding of the no-deal Brexit fallout among the English political elite, and here we stress the word English rather than British. Even now, they still know not what they are about to inflict upon their own people – and their neighbours on this island.

Another crucial Brexit week now beckons. We know where things will land – but we must all hope it does not bring a no-deal Brexit.

Irish Independent


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