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The key demand from Ireland is being couched in as technical language as possible to try to take the political heat out of the situation. It is all about regulation and customs. As repeated by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Friday’s press conference following his meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk, Ireland’s favoured option is for the UK to remain in the UK trading bloc, retaining membership of the EU customs union and the single market. The customs union allows free trade in goods and the single market ensures the same regulations and standards. Together they mean goods and services can flow freely across EU borders.
As Britain insists it will leave both, the Government is seeking “credible, concrete and workable solutions that guarantee there will be no hard Border”, no matter what happens in the EU/UK talks. The question is how to achieve this. Tusk’s comments indicate that the Government has EU support and also makes explicit the fact that Ireland has an effective veto on whether enough progress has been made on the Border issue.
Hard to find. Remember that what is being looked for now is “sufficient progress” on the Border issue, not a full solution. Ireland is seeking a few guarantees . Some, in relation to the Belfast Agreement, cross-Border co-operation and the continuation of the Common Travel Area which allows Irish and British people to move and work freely across the two islands, are not problematic. The crunch issue is how to ensure free movement of goods. Ireland is looking for some kind of commitment that rules and regulations governing trade will be the same on both sides of the Border, and also that the same customs regime will apply. The noise this weekend will all be about this language and what it means and whether a formula can be found to allow EU leaders to judge that sufficient progress has been made on this issue.
The key problem is that keeping regulations and the customs regime the same on both sides of the Border implies they will be different in the North to the rest of the UK. The North would – effectively – be staying in the customs union and at least part of the single market, while the rest of the UK left. The DUP has a problem with this – and so does London.
It won’t be easily found. Similar regulations in areas like agriculture and food already operate on both sides of the Border and agreement should be possible here – and also to continue arrangements such as the common energy market. But the movement of manufactured goods across the Border is the real problem. Business in the North won’t want new controls between Britain and Northern Ireland. And Ireland won’t accept new controls at the Border. Some kind of a new trade deal between the EU and the UK might make all this easier, but this is a long way off.
This was the early solution put forward by London. However, under any likely regime, checks will be needed somewhere, even if SMEs are excluded and big companies can do the paperwork in advance. There is also the likelihood of smuggling and criminality.
Businesses want free movement of goods across the Irish Border. But they are also conscious of the need for a new trade deal between the EU and UK and particularly for early certainty on a transition deal which they hope will allow existing arrangements to apply for at least a couple of years after Britain leaves the EU. So the Irish Government is to an extent balancing political and economic goals here.