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10 November 2017

Offering the EU a bigger divorce payment is pointless without progress on Ireland

The British government position on this issue is closer to science fiction than a policy proposal.

By Stephen Bush

Another staging post in the Brexit talks looks set to end in deadlock, but Theresa May is gearing up to raise her offer to the EU27 about how much she is willing to pay to secure the trade talks she needs. The most important story you will read today, however, is in the FT (if you’re a Remainer) or the Telegraph (if you’re a leaver).

The short version: a leaked European Commission paper proposes an all-island approach to Brexit to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Under the proposals, Northern Ireland would remain inside the customs union and regulatory framework of the European Union, which would mean there would be no border on the island of Ireland, and would instead be one in the Irish sea.

The British government position – restated by James Brokenshire this week – is closer to science fiction than a policy proposal. The government has ruled out: a) physical infrastructure on the Irish border, b) a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and c) remaining in the customs union and the single market. These three positions cannot be reconciled with one another, no matter how many times government ministers use the word “creativity”.

If you have a different customs and regulatory regime, you have to have some form of border checks to ensure that, for instance, the toothbrush you buy in the Boots in Dublin is safe to use when you plug it in in Belfast. The political and emotional trade-offs are not easy but they are simple: you can’t have an open border if you don’t share a regulatory regime.

And because a hard border both disrupts the political balance in Northern Ireland and hits the Irish economy, it is tricky, to put it mildly, to see how it is ever politically tenable for Leo Varadkar or whoever is taoiseach in March 2019 to sign off a Brexit deal that puts a hard border on the island of Ireland.

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Now of course from the perspective of most people in the rest of the United Kingdom, a special status for Northern Ireland is a price they are more than happy to pay for a Brexit deal. In fact they don’t really conceive of it as a price in any sense. That even holds true for most Tory MPs and the bulk of Brexit’s outriders in SW1 and the press. The name “Conservative and Unionist Party” increasingly recalls that joke from Yes, Minister about White Papers: by putting the difficult stuff in the title, you avoid having to tackle it later on.

The difficulty for Theresa May is that as far as the Democratic Unionist Party goes, the word “Unionist” is not remotely ornamental.

It may be that increasing the size of the UK’s offer from £20bn will unblock progress at this stage. But sooner or later, there will have to be a reckoning with the fact that the British government’s current position on the Irish border is the stuff of science fiction, and that no real-world proposal can unite the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the political demands of perpetuating the Conservative Party in office.