Despite the UK parliament’s decision to reject a no-deal Brexit, unless MPs at Westminster finally agree Theresa May’s Brexit deal, or the EU agrees to give the prime minister an extension of the negotiating period, the UK could still leave the EU without a deal.
The day after May’s deal was defeated for the second time at Westminster, the UK government published its plans for tariffs – and the Northern Irish border – in the event of a no-deal Brexit. At a time when the British-Irish relationship is already strained by the Brexit process, the tariff plan was criticised by both the EU and the Irish government.
The Irish government’s main focus remains on securing UK acceptance of the withdrawal agreement and most of the tensions derive from Westminster’s failure to approve it. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, was in Ireland on March 19 to discuss the EU’s response to any requests from the UK to extend the Brexit negotiating period with Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier (Taoiseach).
The UK government proposed that for one year after a no-deal Brexit, goods from the Republic of Ireland that remained in Northern Ireland would not be subject to tariffs, but that EU goods including Irish goods exported to Britain would be. The British government insisted this wouldn’t create a hard border down the Irish sea, as there would be no checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Britain.
Although the publication was overshadowed by events in Westminster, it was clear that the Irish government and the EU opposed it. There was speculation in Dublin that the UK had published the proposals to put extra pressure on the Irish government to drop the so-called Irish backstop from the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Imposing tariffs on goods exported from Ireland to Britain would have significant negative implications for Irish exports, particularly in the beef and dairy sectors. Irish exports to Britain comprise just under 14% of Ireland’s total exports and beef and agrifood is a central part of that.
The proposal raises the possibility that UK exporters could enter the EU market through the backdoor without facing tariffs. Such a plan could only be agreed with EU consent, not unilaterally. The potential for Ireland to become a smugglers paradise is obvious. If the UK changed its regulations over time so that it was no longer aligned to those of the EU, prices of UK exports to Ireland and to the EU more generally could be cheaper than goods produced within the EU. The integrity of the single market would be undermined.
A ‘supreme irony’
Varadkar called the tariff proposals a “supreme irony” as they would treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. This is the very reason Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) opposes the Irish backstop – one of the central issues blocking May’s deal at Westminster.
Varadkar argued that before very long there would have to be checks at Northern Irish ports – essentially creating a border in the Irish sea which is so opposed by the DUP. Clearly the tariff proposals are highly awkward for the DUP. It’s quite possible they were a deliberate British strategy to persuade some of those who had voted against May’s deal for a second time on March 12, not least the ten DUP MPs, to change their minds in any upcoming third vote.
Parliament’s subsequent decision to allow the government to ask the EU for an extension to the Brexit negotiating period adds further pressure on the Brexiteers – as a long extension could increase the chance of Brexit not happening at all.
Future of the border
While still seeking a deal, Varadkar indicated that further measures would be announced soon about the Irish government’s response to a no–deal scenario. In 2018, the Irish government announced it would recruit 500 extra staff to deal with customs in the event of a no-deal Brexit. There is an assumption that in that scenario, customs checks would have to occur, perhaps not at the border, but in areas near it.
Customs checks violate the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The 1998 agreement was negotiated in the context of Irish and UK membership of the single market and EU. The second strand of the agreement, devoted to cross-border co-operation, assumed a relatively open border that allowed freedom of movement. It also explicitly provided for an EU cross-border body, the special EU programmes body, to manage EU funding. A hard border would seriously threaten the ability to implement this.
Despite Ireland’s preparations, most efforts are still focused on securing a deal. The Irish government has repeatedly mentioned that a 21-month extension to the article 50 deadline could be granted if the UK provides clear plans, such as staying in the customs union and single market. The predominant mood in Dublin is a determined, albeit weary one: to protect the backstop and the Good Friday Agreement.