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Brexit: Irish border issue is back

Deal or no deal? Boris Johnson’s new British government is sending mixed signals about the Brexit process. This week it became clear that the Irish border issue is still the headache file.

What is the situation in the Brexit file since the appointment of Johnson?

It is not yet clear what exactly Johnson wants with the Brexit. He says he is not afraid of a “no-deal Brexit,” which “anyway, deal or no deal” will take place on October 31, but assured members of the Conservative Party in June that he had the chance of a withdrawal without agreement as “one in a million”.

He sent half the cabinet down and replaced the relevant ministers with Brexit hawks. One of the biggest hardliners, Jacob Rees-Mogg, became the new leader of the Conservative group in the Lower House.

The key question is whether Johnson only flirts with a hard Brexit to entice the lower house to block it. That would give him political ammunition for the national elections that would thereby become inevitable.

His government is currently carrying out the necessary preparatory work to blame Brussels for a possible ‘no-deal Brexit’ (just like various right-wing British media). The new British Prime Minister has played hard in negotiations with the EU since his appointment. He demands that the backstop arrangement, the ‘insurance policy’ that was devised for the Irish border issue, be abandoned. Otherwise he is not willing to talk to the EU. The Irish border is therefore still the major stumbling block.

The border issue is back from never being gone. The EU does not want to get rid of the backstop, because Brussels cannot accept that its own external border – which will soon run across the Irish island – becomes porous. Moreover, the ultimatum from Johnson makes little impression; the EU has repeatedly said that it is not possible to renegotiate the resignation agreement of Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.

The Brexit hawks in London, in turn, find it hard to digest that the UK cannot unilaterally exit the backstop scheme and that there is no time limit attached to the scheme. Such a limit does not work for an insurance policy, says Brussels.

At the same time, the Northern Irish DUP, which provides the Conservatives with tolerance support, is completely against any solution that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

What is the Irish backstop arrangement?

  • Arranges transition between Brexit and future trade relationship
  • UK stays in European customs union for expensive transit
  • Ireland / Northern Ireland border remains open
  • Checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK

What happens in Northern Ireland with a hard Brexit?

A hard Brexit does not solve the Irish border issue. It is a fact that Northern Ireland will be hit hardest politically and economically by this. And peace in the region is still very fragile. Most Northern Irish people did not want a Brexit: 56 percent voted against in 2016.

The border is not the only problem, by the way. Due to the seriousness of the consequences of a hard Brexit, it is essential that Northern Ireland has a functioning government when it comes to that. That is easier said than done.

In accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the bloody Troubles in the late 1990s, power in the Northern Irish regional government is shared between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.

The coalition of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin clapped in January 2017. The same two parties then won elections and had to form a government again. After more than nine hundred days this has not yet been achieved. Officials keep the government apparatus going but are not authorized to make the most important decisions.

And if there is no Northern Irish government with a Brexit on 31 October?

Then the UK is forced to place (partially) Northern Ireland under the direct authority of London. That goes against the most important point in the Good Friday Day Agreement and can increase the tensions that a ‘no-deal Brexit’ entails.

Extra painful for the Johnson government is that many American politicians do not want the Good Friday Agreement – in which the US mediated – to be affected.

Members of the House of Representatives dominated by Democrats have said they will block trade agreements between the US and the UK. Johnson is counting on an extensive free trade agreement with the Americans to alleviate the economic blow to the UK.

How does Scotland view the Brexit?

The Brexit is by no means popular in Scotland. During the 2016 referendum, no fewer than 62 percent of the Scots voted to stay in the EU. That is why it is time for a repeat of the 2014 independence referendum, says the Scottish National Party (SNP). That was narrowly won by the proponents of the union with the United Kingdom.

And the last country in the UK, Wales?

A majority (52.5 percent) of the population of Wales voted in 2016 for a departure from the EU. However, the Welsh government does not want a ‘no deal Brexit’. There are concerns about the economy: Wales has vulnerable agricultural and production sectors. The country is a major buyer of European agricultural subsidies and structural funds that should reduce the differences in prosperity between regions.

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