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2 October 2019

Why Boris Johnson’s Irish border plans are doomed to fail

The government isn’t expecting to succeed — it’s testing the EU’s unity and resolve. 

By Patrick Maguire

What are we to make of Boris Johnson’s “final offer” to the EU on the Irish border? The UK has effectively proposed two new frontiers: one in the Irish Sea for regulations and another on the island itself for customs. 

The plans would see Northern Ireland remain aligned with EU rules on goods for four years after the end of the transition period in 2021, after which the Stormont assembly would vote on whether to diverge. It would, however, leave the customs union entirely, and be exempted from the EU’s customs code. That would negate the need for VAT and excise inspections on the border itself, but it would oblige the Irish government to carry out checks themselves. 

Though the government has finally managed to square the DUP, who for the first time have agreed to east-west checks, there is no chance of the plan flying in the place it really needs to: Dublin. One unimpressed Irish official describes the proposals as a “rummage through the parts bin”. They fulfil neither of the EU’s key aims — avoiding new infrastructure and protecting the integrity of the single market (an unpoliced VAT border would inevitably become a magnet for smuggling). So they have been rejected over the airwaves today, and they will be rejected in Brussels too. 

The government knows this, of course. Its plans, and the pretension of finality, are instead intended as a test of the EU27’s unity and resolve: accept an unsatisfactory negotiated solution and secure an orderly transition, or risk a no-deal scenario and the immediate imposition of the hard border they are duty-bound to avoid. They are being read accordingly. But there is little chance of Dublin folding, at least over this set of proposals: the private view of officials is that, with an extension looming, they have no need to move. 

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