Remember Brexit? Yes, that one. Readers outside the U.K.—including in Europe—might be surprised to discover it’s still an issue. Britons voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Two general elections and two prime ministers later, the departure formally occurred in early 2021. So why on earth has the issue exploded, again, this week?
The latest controversy concerns Northern Ireland, whose border with the Republic of Ireland constitutes the only land crossing between the European Union and the newly independent U.K. Prime Minister
is threatening to tear up the part of Britain’s divorce settlement with the EU that governs trade between the British mainland and Northern Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU—a move that would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence.
That’s the panoramic view of the controversy. The technical details would bore you to tears. Suffice it to say that, as with most things Brexit, the real problem is that this dispute exposes identity crises on both sides.
On London’s side, Northern Ireland has been a constant source of Brexit friction because it is neither fully part of the U.K. or fully independent of it. The 1998 agreement was a fudge. The deal cemented British “sovereignty” over Northern Ireland, but also inserted those scare quotes as the U.K. relinquished two of the defining characteristics of modern sovereignty: control of the border and control of citizenship.
London, Dublin and the parties to the Northern Ireland conflict agreed to maintain a fully open border between British-controlled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on the rest of the island. They also agreed that residents of Northern Ireland would be able to choose U.K. or Irish citizenship, with equal rights attached to either option.
This was possible only because Britain and the Republic of Ireland were both members of the European Union. Goods and people could travel freely within the EU’s common market, obviating the need for a border anyway. British or Irish citizenship would confer equal rights to live, work or study anywhere in the EU.
After Brexit, that land border matters again. Since London committed in 1998 to maintaining an open border in perpetuity, the Brexit solution to date has been to erect a new customs border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland keeps EU-esque regulations and trades openly across the land border, while EU-required checks are conducted on goods transiting between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. This avoids a hard border while bowing to the EU’s right to maintain controls on goods flowing into the bloc via this channel.
Mr. Johnson says this is proving unworkable, and it’s hard to disagree. The Brexit compromise threatens to make the free movement of goods within the U.K. impossible, requiring hours of paperwork and millions of pounds in compliance costs, all to facilitate open trade between one part of the U.K. and an outside party. It’s as if the U.S. imposed customs checks on the Minnesota-North Dakota line so North Dakota could enjoy an open border with Canada. Yet a solution that accounts for Britain’s constitutional fragility as a country while satisfying its aspiration to be independent of the EU is proving elusive.
The failure here is one of self-awareness. Brexiteers like Mr. Johnson seem not to have been alert to the crisis of fragile national identity their nationalist project would trigger in Northern Ireland.
None of which lets Brussels off the hook. If the U.K. identity crisis is that it’s not fully united, the EU’s crisis is that it can’t agree on what “union” should mean. To wit:
An alternative solution to the Northern Ireland problem exists, which Mr. Johnson seems to want to achieve. The EU could forgo enforcement of the Irish border from its side, perhaps by declaring that British regulations are “equivalent” to European Union rules. There would then be no need for most of the customs controls currently in place for the sake of “protecting” the EU market from British products.
This would even have the virtue of being mostly true, now that libertarian hopes of turning post-Brexit Britain into a deregulated, low-tax Singapore-on-Thames are dead. Why not turn Britain’s reform failures into the EU’s diplomatic victory in Ireland?
Because the rules themselves are the main thing holding the bloc together. A resurgence of national feeling in various quarters of the Continent over the past decade has laid bare how little agreement there is about what the European Union, or membership in it, means.
Americans have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Britons have Magna Carta, the queen and tea. What gives the European Union its ineffable EU-ness? For now it’s vague talk of democratic values, disbursements of EU cash, and economic regulations applied equally from Lisbon to Ljubljana. No wonder the technocrats in Brussels trying to hold this mess together fear they can’t bend the rules to solve the Irish problem.
Northern Ireland’s bad fortune is to be caught between these equally intractable identity crises. Whatever Brexit fudge Mr. Johnson and Brussels arrive at next, don’t expect it to last much longer than the last one did.
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