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7 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:10pm

The UK wants to avoid a hard border with Ireland? Easy – stay in the single market

Watching the negotiations has been like observing a slightly confused walrus bargaining with a pod of 27 orcas.

By Alyn Smith

It may shock you, but I have come to the conclusion that an assertion from David Davis might not be worth that much. He “did not accept” the UK was losing the two EU Agencies. The UK government encouraged five UK cities to bid for a European Capital of Culture Programme they clearly weren’t eligible for.

As we’d say in Scotland, they ken noo. The events of the last few days have begun to feel like the end of the beginning. The Brexiteers have charged into the Article 50 process without a plan or, it seems, clue of what they want. The “have your cake and eat it” sloganeering is now crashing into hard reality. Nowhere has this been more apparent than Ireland. At the stroke of 23:00 on Brexit Day (note that Brexit happens at midnight, Brussels time) the border crashes into existence, unless a fix is found now.

The Good Friday Agreement cannot be respected and there cannot be an open border in Ireland unless Northern Ireland is in the single market and customs union. A fudge will fall apart in days once it is tested. Various politicians in London have asserted that the EU is the bad guy here. So let me be clear: the UK cannot leave an open border across the island of Ireland unless it decides to create a level playing field and have an open border with the entire world. The rules of the World Trade Organisation prevent it (if you didn’t like Brussels, just wait till you meet Geneva).

The EU and UK will obey international law (hopefully) which means we need a solution that works, not Trumpesque slogans about the Irish paying for it. Norway and Sweden have a light touch border, so solutions can be found, but the solution is based on both being in the single market. 

The view from here in Brussels is binary. Ireland is one of us and deserves solidarity, the UK has decided to throw that solidarity away (and a lot of British leaders have been gratuitously offensive to boot). Tellingly, when the European Commission published its guiding principles on Ireland and Northern Ireland, the web link for more information took you directly to the Irish government’s homepage. The Irish understand how Brussels works. They have diplomatically outmanoeuvred the UK at every turn. The latter is now being treated as a third party, not a member state of the EU. 

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The understanding and sympathy for Ireland amongst Commission officials, member states and my fellow MEPs has been entirely underestimated by London. The UK press has all but ignored the issue until a week or so ago and then appeared surprised that it has become so prominent.

There was no surprise on this side of the North Sea. When the Council and Parliament organised a collective mandate for the lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, Ireland was there, front and centre. As EU Commissioner, Barnier himself was intimately involved in the EU support for the PEACE Programmes in Northern Ireland. He knows the island and its politics well, arguably far better than any of the UK ministers. That is why the Irish border was included in the first phase and why right now the EU27 position is identical to that of Ireland.

Watching the negotiations has been like observing a slightly confused walrus bargaining with a pod of 27 orcas. So where do we go from here? If the UK can come up with a compromise that works, it will be looked at. If not, then Northern Ireland should in all but name remain within the single market and customs union. This is the obvious solution.

MEPs have been talking about these issues for months, and they have real expertise. Colleagues of mine from across the Parliament and Commission understand this because on a daily basis we deal with these issues. This is why the proposal put forward is simple, deliverable and in line with international law. The integrity of the single market is not up for negotiation because the UK is leaving, just as it is not up for negotiation in the EU’s ongoing negotiations with the Mercosur trading bloc in South America: MEPs and member states will defend it.

This is the reality. After months of negotiations, it seems that it is slowly starting to become apparent that the empty rhetoric of the various Leave campaigns will not see us through. What we need now is leadership and solutions. The UK must start by showing real flexibility within itself and with the EU to allow the various democratic mandates and legal realities that exist within these isles to be respected. Differentiated solutions can work. The Scottish government has proposed one for Scotland. The obvious solution is that if the entirety of the UK stayed in the single market and the customs union we could solve the Irish border issue in a stroke and go some way towards respecting the Remain votes of Scotland, London and Gibraltar. It will create other problems but at least give us time to honestly try to solve them.

Alyn Smith is a Scottish National Party MEP for Scotland. 

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