Why not a Brexit backstop down the English Channel?

The main obstacle to Brexit is, arguably, the Good Friday Agreement. It commits the UK, Ireland and, in effect, the Europe Union (EU) to a porous border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (NI). As long as both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU this was not an issue. However, it was not long after the UK voted to leave the EU that the border became the central issue. In short, given that a hard border between Ireland and NI cannot be maintained, where should the border between the UK and the EU be drawn? The only option seems to be to place it in the Irish sea, effectively designating NI special economic zone and further dividing it from Great Britain (GB)

This solution is, however, impolitic at best. Furthermore, creating a border between NI and GB represents the division of a EU member state in order to achieve what should, in political terms, be eminently achievable. Regardless of the problematic details, the idea that a member state cannot leave the EU because it is fundamentally impracticable should worry all of its members.

In amongst all this debate and turmoil one solution has not been explicitly considered, or so it would seem. Just as one might draw a border down the Irish sea, and separate NI from GB, one might draw a border down the English channel, separating the UK and Ireland from the EU. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ireland leave the EU. Rather, I am suggesting that, for a range of practical and political reasons, the UK’s effective border with the EU should not include Ireland.

Like all the other suggestions considered thus far, this idea will, no doubt, create another set of political problems and resentments. Nevertheless, it will also help solve a number of problems that are not addressed by placing a border in the Irish sea, such as the fact that a great deal of the goods that travel between Ireland other EU countries pass through the UK. Traversing one border is easier than traversing two and, in either case, we will need to establish process for determining the origin and destinations of goods. Furthermore, it is already the case that Ireland and the UK have a unique relationship, one that differs from relationships with other EU countries. Perhaps this relationship could be advantageous and used as a basis for negotiating the substantive details of Brexit and the future of the UKs relationship with the EU. Whilst many in Ireland and the EU may well be adverse to this solution, perhaps more adverse as those in the UK are to the introduction of a division between GB and NI, it may well be something that can work to the advantage of Ireland, the EU and the UK.

Given the UK voted to leave the EU, the focus has quite rightly been on the UK’s responsibilities. Thus, the creation of a border between the UK and the EU that lives up to Anglo-Irish agreements has primarily been seen as a UK problem. However, at this point, we might ask, what are the EU’s responsibilities? Does it not have a duty to ensure that its members can effectively leave? It may not be ideal, politically speaking, to ask the EU to introduce and manage an internal border between the Ireland and continental Europe, but it seems the only effective way to allow the UK to leave the EU without either putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk or impacting on the internal sovereignty of the UK.

Finally, whilst there is a sense in which I am unsurprised that this proposal does not seem to have been considered in any real sense, what does surprise me is that it has not been used as a political tool. Early on in this debate it seemed clear that a beleaguered UK government needed to find a way to put the EU on the back foot, to present it as being intransigent or in some way unwilling to negotiate, at least in the domestic press. This has not proved possible. However, pursuing this idea would, I think, have gone some way to achieving this goal. One would think that such political reasoning would have given the idea some impetus. After all, in a debate that sometimes seems primarily rhetorical, a further bout of rhetoric is only to be expected.



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