Brexit falters over a faux border problem

A no-confidence vote was called this week in the British Parliament; Prime Minister Theresa MayTheresa Mary MayBudowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat Mark Ruffalo dismisses Boris Johnson's comparisons to the Hulk: 'The Hulk only fights for the good of the whole' Queen Elizabeth to honor ex-British ambassador who called Trump 'inept' MORE survived, but her Brexit plan is faltering because of its so-called “backstop” provision.

The backstop is a solution in search of a problem. It purports to preserve the open border between tiny Northern Ireland, the only non-contiguous part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, its land neighbor on the Emerald Isle.

In truth, the open border can preserve itself, because trade and immigration flows across it are miniscule. The trade amounts to a rounding error in Britain’s overall volume of trade, and so does immigration in relation to overall migration into Britain.

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That is not to say that the open border is not important. It is universally agreed that it is an essential element of the Good Friday peace agreement that ended sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland during the last decades of the 20th century.

The problem is that Britain’s prime minister has presented the open border as a major problem, and says the backstop as the only way to solve it. Neither claim is valid.

First, what is the “backstop?” The term is confusing. The backstop is an agreement to maintain an open border, if, at some point in the future, Britain leaves the common trade and customs area of the European Union. But wait, isn’t Britain doing that right now, effective March 29?

No, it isn’t.

May’s agreement keeps Britain in the EU’s common customs and trade area until someone comes up with a way to “square a round hole” — namely, a way to maintain an open border between two nations when one is outside and one inside the EU. It is a genuine conceptual conundrum.

However, when the “problem” is viewed in practical, rather than conceptual, terms, it ceases to be a problem at all.

The estimated GDP of Northern Ireland is roughly $55 billion. An economy of that size does not generate or attract import/export volumes of any consequence in relation to Britain’s overall $2.6 trillion economy. Northern Ireland’s population is less than 2 million, a number that does not experience migration of any consequence in relation to Britain’s overall population of almost 70 million, or in relation to the recent volume of in-migration into Britain — that which has upset Britons and contributed to the vote for Brexit.

Northern Ireland trade and immigration volumes are immaterial — and isolated from mainland Britain across the Irish Sea.

Any violations of new British customs and tariff, or of new immigration, policies would be at such a small scale that they would best be overlooked. A “trust but verify” policy would suffice, with vast emphasis on trust.

Trade and migration across the open border should be monitored, not controlled. Any significant increases through the North into Britain would be easily noticeable, merely by monitoring transport volumes on the ships, ferries and airplanes, which are the only transportation means over the Irish Sea. Indeed, the original source of through-flows, the Irish Republic, is itself isolated far across the seas from continental Europe. Because of its location, the North is an unlikely and impractical territory through which to gain illegal entry into mainland Britain. Moreover, any problems could be addressed through bilateral negotiations between Britain and the Irish Republic.

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And that brings us to the probable origin and likely purpose of the gross exaggeration of the open border “problem,” with the result that genuine Brexit is being postponed indefinitely and the “backstop” provision is considered necessary.

While there have been no reports of major problems at the open border on the Emerald Isle, there have been massive problems at borders within the continental EU. In response, Hungary has erected a border fence topped with concertina wire and manned by armed guards who check everyone seeking entrance. Germans have rebelled against the influx of more than 1 million refugees in 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has tightened entry procedures, but has lost her party leadership post nevertheless. Italians have rebelled against their position as the de facto point of entry for mass in-migration from Northern Africa.

The notion of a “problem” at the Irish open border is an outgrowth of real problems elsewhere in the EU, not on the Emerald Isle. The “backstop” is unnecessary as a solution in Ireland, but serves the purpose of EU mandarins in terms of a reaffirmation of their “open borders” policy, which they are struggling to maintain and which Britain has voted to reject.

In deferring genuine Brexit indefinitely, the fallacious open border “problem” serves an even greater design of those mandarins, namely their admitted aim to make Brexit so fraught that it serves to deter other nations from leaving the EU.

Prime Minster May seems either clueless or cowardly in her failure to see all of this for what it is.

As a result, May’s entire 585-page Brexit agreement is based upon a fallacy and should be radically revised, if not scrapped. Britain should present the EU with an elementally simple Brexit agreement providing for its on-time exit next March from the common customs and trade area, one that enables it to control its own borders with respect to both immigration and trade, allows it to strike trade agreements with non-EU nations and permits it to regain the genuine sovereignty for which Britons voted in June 2016. 

Red Jahncke is president of Townsend Group International, a business consultancy headquartered in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RedJahncke.