The Irish border requires fudge and compromise – get used to it
“No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made. We just assume that it happens, but no one else is in the room where it happens.”
So raps Aaron Burr in the hit Broadway musical Hamilton – opening in the West End later this month. He is referring to US treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton hammering out a compromise with his nemesis Thomas Jefferson to get his financial plan through Congress.
If only the UK’s negotiations with the EU, which this week came to a very public crunch point, had been handled similarly discreetly.
The fate of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU apparently rests on 10 rather obstinate DUP MPs from Northern Ireland.
Juncker, representing the interests of the EU27, which includes the Republic of Ireland, has a whole list of negotiating “red lines”, one of which rules out a hard border across Ireland.
No one – not the EU, the Irish government, Theresa May, Leavers, Remainers, or even the DUP – wants a hard border, which would cut through villages and risk destabilising the peace that’s held since the Good Friday Agreement.
But with the UK set to withdraw from the Customs Union and the Single Market, some kind of arrangement is necessary. Maintaining free movement of goods and people across the border obviously raises issues if the Republic remains part of a supranational regulatory bloc and the UK does not.
Nor is any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain acceptable, anymore than customs points would be between Carlisle and Gretna Green – or between London and everything outside the M25.
There are three possible answers to this dilemma.
The first is to keep the UK inside the Customs Union and Single Market. This is appealing to Remainers, who see it as a way to stay close to the EU. It is, however, unacceptable if Britain wants the benefits of seeking new trade opportunities outside the EU following liberation from Brussels’ rules.
The second is for the Republic of Ireland to leave the EU too. This niche view has been a pet proposal of certain hard Brexiteers (such Ukip MEP Stuart Agnew), but no one is taking it seriously. Whatever its historical and geographical ties to Britain, Ireland is remaining firmly in the EU and the Eurozone for the foreseeable future.
The final option is to find some way of fudging it, which is exactly what May, Juncker, and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar thought they had achieved on Monday.
The compromise appears to have been “regulatory alignment” on both sides of the Irish border that would allow for a softer Brexit than the rest of the UK. The Republic of Ireland would still be in the Single Market, Northern Ireland would not, but they would be able to carry on as before.
It was this distinction that caused DUP leader Arlene Foster to wreck the talks, refusing to accept any “divergence” from the rest of Britain. “Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” she insisted. And since her MPs’ support is the only thing keeping May in Downing Street, she got her wish – for now.
Domestically, May is looking weak, and the DUP’s disproportionate influence on proceedings is a reminder of her reckless decision to bet her majority on a snap election and lose it all.
There is anger in all corners of the highly fractured Tory party, and it is unclear how long the informal confidence-and-supply arrangement can last if the DUP continues to throw its weight around. The irony that May called the election to give herself a stronger Brexit mandate has not been missed.
But the good news in all this is that the EU and the UK teams are evidently capable of working through issues like this, and the compromise they achieved is likely to form the basis of the eventual solution.
After the talks were put on ice, Juncker praised May as a “tough negotiator”, and EU officials are reportedly optimistic about the future. It seems other thorny issues, such as the rights of EU citizens and the divorce bill, have been settled.
May and Juncker are meeting again this week and both suggested they were close to a deal that would enable them to move onto the next stage: trade talks.
And that is where the claws are really going to come out, with lobby groups on both sides clamouring for a voice in what promises to be a complex, messy, and highly emotional process. Compromise will be required if we are to achieve anything, and the ability of any one individual interest to sabotage the entire process will be a disaster.
At the end of the Hamilton song, Burr acknowledges: “we want our leaders to save the day – but we don’t get a say in what they trade away”. Simpler times.
May and her team can’t escape from their audience, but maybe we would all benefit from taking a step back, and accepting compromises on both sides will be necessary.