Theresa May, transitions and the Northern Ireland border
Theresa May has been given permission by the Tory Right to embrace a full blown transition period after Brexit.
I mentioned last month that Mrs May’s position on ECJ jurisdiction seemed to have switched. Now, on her trip to the Middle East, she has acknowledged that freedom of movement could continue for a transition period after Brexit.
The Right in her party appear, on legal advice, to have satisfied themselves that there is no turning back on Brexit and that any chance of slipping back into the EU through a back door, which in truth is exactly what quite a few pro-Remain MPs privately talked about, is now out of the question. So they (or a critical mass of them) are willing to compromise on extending some major facets of life inside the EU for a couple of years or so as long as Britain has left by the end of March 2019.
Some Remain MPs’ hopes will now switch to extending the transitional arrangements, which could have echoes of Norway’s status in some respects. They’ll be hoping this semi-soft Brexit could be perpetuated longer than a two to three year transition phase.
None of this will calm any nerves in the neighbourhood I’ve just been visiting: the Northern Ireland border areas around Londonderry.
After decades of a sealed border, some of them with heavy military presence, the area had just emerged blinking into a happier new dawn of free movement only to have that threatened by the talk of a “hard border.”
The British and Irish governments say, as one, they’ll work out a border arrangement that is “frictionless and seamless,” which sounds a lot like some sort of underwear ad. They are working on technologies that allow tracking goods and lorries and a leak from the Irish government confirmed that it has been looking at a small number of customs checkpoints on several of the main roads (there are 200 plus crossings in total on a 300 mile border). These customs posts would probably be several miles back from the actual border and discreetly located off the main road. Lorries would be directed to turn off the main road, maybe via an electronic sign or messaging (no one wants a lone customs officer directing traffic on the curb side). Only a minority of lorries would be detoured for the checks. Don’t worry, the message goes, the borders will feel the same as they do now.
I didn’t meet anyone on either side of the border who was confident the governments will pull that off. Some think they might start with that approach and then ratchet up security as the border proves a smuggler’s delight.
The Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s tenure continues in a strange limbo (his potential successors seem wary of wielding the knife – both are fearful of “alienating Kenny and his old brigade of rural backbencher,” Tom Kelly writes in today’s Belfast Telegraph. Mr Kenny is using what political time he has left to lobby the rest of the EU furiously on Ireland’s behalf. He’s in Berlin today meeting Chancellor Merkel. Other Irish government ministers have been very busy lobbying fellow EU governments too, trying to get them to endorse a light touch border arrangement and generally flag up Ireland’s profound concerns about the political and economic impact of Brexit.
One UK government source told me that the Irish government is effectively trying to get EU leaders “to turn a blind eye” to a porous border in the greater interests of peace and prosperity, “just as they turn a blind eye to all sorts of things across the 28.” “Dublin thinks it’s a matter of will and trade-offs,” the UK government source said.
The source acknowledged, as many residents of Derry and the nearby towns of Donegal suspect, that “on goods, no-one has a solution yet.”