“We are the EU”, so say all 28 countries of the European Union. The UK Eurosceptics though see the EU as ‘Brussels’, something to be fought, like Henry V did at Agincourt. To its supporters the EU is about unity and treating all members equally. Now the UK is looking to leave the club. The stumbling block in the protracted Brexit negotiations is the Irish border and its failsafe, the Irish Backstop.
Brexiteers believed that the UK could walk away from the shackles of the EU and into a world of unlimited free trade. There would be no need for silly European laws, regulations and paperwork. Trade would be simple, and Britain would prosper. They never thought about the Irish border, that 499km of a division between British Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The border is contentious, a place of violence and killings since its establishment as an international one in 1922. The Good Friday Agreement did away with the hard border of security checks, armed soldiers and concrete barriers. The 1998 agreement is one of the crowning achievements of EU cooperation and fits perfectly with the ideals of free trade, open borders and equal support for all members. One of its tenets is keeping the Irish border open and never to return to the days of a closed, hard one on the island of Ireland.
Brexit changes everything. It leaves the boundary between northern and southern Ireland as the only land border between the UK and Europe. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t be a problem. Countries would set up fixed crossings to monitor trade and movement of people, with barriers and security checks; this cannot happen in Ireland where you are dividing a nation. The closing of the Irish border will open old wounds.
Every time the UK and the EU come close to a divorce agreement the Irish border is the falling point. Theresa May is committed to an open border between the Republic and the UK, as is Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk. Yet the UK cannot exit the EU without closing its land border with Ireland. The EU cannot leave the door open to a non-member and have goods, services, people and animals travelling into and out of the Union unchecked. The UK wants to close its borders, take back control as the Brexiteers call it, but knows it is committed to an open one with the Republic of Ireland. What is the solution and how do both sides find a way out?
The Irish Backstop is a stopgap. It briefly states that all sides agree to not having a hard border on the island of Ireland. There will never be a return to the bad old days of soldiers, barbed wire and passport checks. The EU states that this is non-negotiable; in the event of a hard Brexit, the UK leaving without any agreement, the Irish Backstop will be triggered, keeping the border open, unique for the EU. The only way this can happen is for the UK to stay within the EU customs union, a core no-no for Brexit believers.
For better or for worse the UK voted to leave, and Theresa May has vowed to uphold the decision. The Republic of Ireland is a member of the EU and a firm supporter of the Union. The EU is supporting a member and is putting Ireland’s concerns at the heart of its negotiations with the 6th largest economy in the world. The EU is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and as such is fulfilling its obligations. Without solidarity the European Union will fall apart. It has been under strain at times, but now it is standing behind one of its members when needed. Fully supporting all countries equally is key to the EU project, and so far the Union is staying close to that belief.
Brexiteers may hate the Irish Backstop. To Europe and indeed the rest of the world, the US has also stated its commitment, it is non-negotiable. The EU will survive Brexit, but getting it wrong could put the Union at peril. Keeping the Irish border soft is a hard nettle to grasp for Tory Eurosceptics, but support for the Backstop is key to the EU project.