Borders are critical as any student of political geography will tell you, irrespective of what is happening in Azerbaijan or Ulster. The can that has been kicked down the road for three years must finally be picked up and opened like Pandora’s Box. This can is the border question defining the EU and the UK after January 2021. Two things bring this into sharp focus: the Internal Market bill in the Lords and a Biden White House more aware of the issues in Ireland than the previous president.
The UK is of course the United Kingdom of Great Britain (an island) and Northern Ireland (the province of Ulster). The conservative party is committed to strong ties with Ulster as is evidenced by its correct title the Conservative & Unionist party. The May government relied on the Ulster MPs for her slender majority and this dependency weakened her hand in negotiations with Brussels. It was only after the Johnson government secured a significant majority that concerns of a handful of Unionist MPs were ignored for the sake of ‘Getting Brexit done’. A border down the Irish Sea was more important than Unionist concerns if it meant an end to three years of political stalemate.
Agreeing to a maritime border left Ulster a de-facto member of the EU – something the majority of its population actually wanted – but which Westminster could not tolerate. The Internal Market bill seeks to over-ride the commitment to a maritime border and remove any implicit border controls which might restrict goods and services flowing between Britain and Ulster. This has been presented to parliament as asserting the right of the UK to govern its own sovereign territory (as distinct from reneging on an international treaty).
It is worth recalling why the EU accepted the Irish Sea as the border in order to seal the Brexit deal in January 2020. The real EU border which exists on the island of Ireland between the Republic ruled from Dublin and Ulster ruled from Belfast (Stormont) was considered too sensitive to police ever since the 1997 Irish peace accord agreed between Tony Blair and the IRA. Currently this is a ‘soft’ border and is deemed impossible to be made ‘hard’ for fear of a resurgence of armed conflict. The EU wants a hard border and so the Irish Sea was proposed as a compromise to deliver this in January 2020.
Why does the EU insist on a hard border, one that can be rigorously policed to prevent smuggling? The EU does accept soft borders with some neighbouring countries like Norway and Switzerland so why a hard border with the UK? The UK government has made it clear that it will encourage Free Ports and tariff -free zones ones it leaves the EU to attract international trade to replace the loss of revenue from the EU. It also means that a lot of goods will enter the UK that would be cheaper than in Europe and this price differential is likely to encourage smuggling across a porous border. The EU is very keen on its protectionist tariff regime.
What influence can Biden or the Lords really have? Biden is a supporter of the peace accord, largely because of his Irish roots, so would be unhappy for any solution that reinstates border controls between the Republic and Ulster, as indeed would most people who inhabit Ireland on both sides of the border. This is also the conventional wisdom everywhere else except Whitehall, where there is now a real drive to move the border off the sea and back to the land where it legally lies. The Commons seem keen on this and currently only the Lords are holding out, but they can’t do so indefinitely.
Given that the UK is struggling with economic damage caused by a resurgent Covid virus plus a highly probable EU exit without any trade deal, the border issue does not merit too much attention given this double- whammy to the economy. The maritime border is geographically simpler after all, the EU accepted it in the Brexit treaty and even agreed that Ulster could decide at a later date whether it wanted to stay in the EU along with the Republic. The problem with the maritime border is that the conservative government on reflection does not like the way this creates extra protocols when crossing the Irish Sea. The border conundrum ultimately brought down the May government, but it remains to be seen how far it will damage the Johnson government. The can is now at the end of the road and must be picked up and opened.