In religion or politics, the zeal of a convert is hard to match. Theresa May’s overnight conversion from soft-Remain to full blown, patriotic, red-white-and-blue Brexiteer is no exception to this. For months we were told “Brexit means Brexit” and other such vaugeries, underpinned by the constant threat of a “hard Brexit”, a total break from the EU, it’s markets and it’s open borders. May built an alliance with Davis, Johnson, Fox and Gove – four of the Tories’ leading eurosceptics – and set Britain on a path not only out of the European Union, but out of absolutely everything with the word “Europe” attached to it. This caused controversy, to be sure, but for a long time it appeared that dreams of a “soft” Brexit were doomed. That is until Brexiter hopes slammed into the hard reality of Ireland.
The issue of Ireland and it’s border has plagued British politics since the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and the start of the Troubles. A free and open border with the Republic of Ireland has existed in one form or another since 1923, on Irish independence 2 years prior a hard border had been set up, with inspections, tariffs and border checkpoints. It was a disaster. The economies of both Northern and Southern Ireland slowed and communities who had developed across the border were split up – the Common Travel Area was created to allow people and goods free travel between the two countries. It has become an essential part of Anglo-Irish relations and treaties including the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. If Brexit shuts this border off just as happened 94 years prior, tensions will rise, economies will crash and communities will be destroyed. This time however, we could see a complete breakdown of civil political discourse in Northern Ireland, which has already been bereft of a working government since June.
To shut this border down would have been unthinkable just 2 years ago. However with Ireland a member of the EU, a hard border with Europe would mean a hard border with the Republic of Ireland or a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. May, in an abortive and horrendously executed effort, attempted the latter and earned the ire of every single Unionist in Ulster, who see any difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as the start of a slippery slope towards Irish Unification. With a hard border with the Republic made near impossible by both economic dependency and Irish Republican anger and a hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain made impossible by Unionist anger and DUP opposition, it became clear. There would be no hard border between Europe and Britain. In one fell swoop, May and Davis relented on a myriad of points; suggesting a €50 Billion settlement fee whilst “the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union”.
The implications of this are utterly bizarre; the United Kingdom is paying fifty billion Euros to follow all the same economic rules as before but have no say in making them. Until now, British MEPs voted on every single law, regulation and rule that the EU enacted – now however we will be deprived of our voting rights but forced to accept and abide by rules made by French, German and Irish politicians with zero input. European immigration too would continue as the rules of the Customs Union include the free movement of people. It’s an utter embarrassment and a total surrender, but, deprived of any other workable solution, it is all we have.
There is an argument, and for some a hope, that such “alignment” will be a temporary affair; followed for 2 years or so before Britain really leaves the EU. If this is the case however, then all we have done is kick the issue into the future. When we do “really” leave the EU, what then? Why would a hard border, in contravention of nearly 100 years of tradition, political sense and the wishes of most on either side of the border, be more workable then than now? The answer is simple, it just wouldn’t. The UK and RoI are joined at the hip, despite historical amity, and to separate them would cause massive, unnecessary trauma. It cannot be done sensibly now, it cannot be done sensibly in 2020 or 2025 or 2050.
If we can’t close the door to Europe, we can’t leave it. Respecting the democratic will of the people is important and I don’t think anyone can say that this government haven’t tried but at every turn on every issue, it becomes more and more impossible. Now we’re stuck in limbo; even the government seems unsure of just what post-Brexit relations with Europe will look like. At the moment, all we seem to be doing is paying to give up power, to become a strange economic protectorate of Europe, a passive player in an increasingly high stakes game. Even today, as the EU allows negotiations to move forward into the stage of trade deals, those deals turning into a complete surrender seems almost inevitable.
Ireland makes a successful Brexit impossible and there are now three solutions: a brutish, damaging split with tokenistic attempts to reduce the economic and political toll on Britain; an awkward compromise as “full alignment” continues and Britain loses control of her future; or finally the simplest, easiest solution, one that would maintain our close links and our influence, that would be best for the economy and easiest to implement, the obvious and simple answer – cancel Brexit.