As Tories slug it out, does any­one care about Ire­land? Rafael Behr

Cab­i­net min­is­ters seem will­ing to risk the hard-won peace and pros­per­ity to ad­vance their own agen­das

The Guardian - - JOURNAL | OPINION -

There is no def­i­ni­tion of good neigh­bourli­ness in for­eign af­fairs. Al­liances are fixed by treaties. Re­gional trade is mea­sured in goods and ser­vices. But those things can­not de­scribe the tex­ture of re­la­tions be­tween coun­tries, the way ad­ja­cent na­tions rub along to­gether. This qual­ity is as im­por­tant to Brexit as the tech­ni­cal hooks on which ne­go­ti­a­tions are cur­rently snagged. No Euro­pean Union mem­ber state wanted the UK to leave, and it is hard for them not to feel ag­grieved by Bri­tain’s choices. Theresa May urges Brus­sels not to take of­fence. Less emol­lient leavers say the con­ti­nen­tals should get over it and fo­cus on mu­tual trade (as if their own cam­paign was some case study in cool ra­tio­nal­ity).

But in West­min­ster, Brexit does not of­ten look like a for­eign pol­icy is­sue at all. It doesn’t even look much like an ef­fort to weigh na­tional in­ter­ests. It is a Tory fight club, a rolling bout of ego wrestling among cab­i­net min­is­ters slam­ming each other on to the faded can­vas of Bri­tain’s rep­u­ta­tion as a se­ri­ous coun­try. Michael Gove and Boris John­son send men­ac­ing mis­sives to No 10 de­mand­ing a purge of Brexit dis­sent. David Davis lets it be known he is “fu­ri­ous” at their med­dling. The med­dlers re­spond, via anony­mous al­lies, that Davis is “a fuck­wit”. Classy.

They all act as if Brexit is some­thing the Con­ser­va­tive party will claim from Brus­sels and be­stow on a grate­ful na­tion. They do not ap­pear to recog­nise that the gift is not theirs alone to give. It will be shaped by the gen­eros­ity of the other side in the ne­go­ti­a­tion. That good­will was de­pleted from the start.

Be­fore a penny of Bri­tain’s EU bud­get con­tri­bu­tion has been re­couped, the de­ci­sion to leave the club in­flicts costs on its mem­bers. It is a tax on their eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and diplo­matic co­he­sion. May in­sists her in­tent is be­nign, but the process it­self dam­ages every­one. Those clos­est to the source of grief are hurt most.

The big­gest loser by a mile is Ire­land. In March, the Euro­pean par­lia­ment pub­lished an as­sess­ment of Brexit’s im­pact on EU states. “The most strik­ing re­sult is that Ire­land suf­fers the same mag­ni­tude of losses as does the UK,” the au­thors note. This was true in op­ti­mistic and pes­simistic sce­nar­ios. Which­ever way you slice it, Brexit looks like eco­nomic ag­gres­sion across the Ir­ish sea.

The pain starts at the bor­der. There are 275 cross­ing points on the bound­ary be­tween north and south, tra­versed 110 mil­lion times per year. Busi­ness sup­ply chains weave in and out of the repub­lic. More pre­cious than com­merce is the cur­rent in­vis­i­bil­ity of a line that was so re­cently inked in blood. Those who pa­trolled it were tar­geted by ter­ror­ists. Many more peace­ful bor­ders are the scars of old wars, and North­ern Ire­land’s schisms are fresh in folk mem­ory. A lucky gen­er­a­tion has grown up un­der the shel­ter of the Good Fri­day agree­ment, but their par­ents know what vi­o­lence led them there.

It is in no­body’s in­ter­ests for a heal­ing wound to be un­dressed. But that is where de­ter­mi­na­tion to leave the sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union leads. Re­mov­ing North­ern Ire­land from those ar­range­ments forces the Repub­lic to po­lice what would be­come an ex­ter­nal bound­ary of the EU – to ver­ify that in­com­ing goods meet the req­ui­site stan­dards. No one who has ex­am­ined how this might be done thinks it can be achieved with­out fric­tion, some road­side in­fra­struc­ture and smug­gling by or­gan­ised crime gangs.

Davis re­cently told par­lia­ment that he was “pretty much ab­so­lutely” com­mit­ted to an in­vis­i­ble bor­der. In slip­pery Brex­iter code, that means not fully com­mit­ted. The logic of a hard Brexit is im­pla­ca­ble: there will be a bor­der. It can be on the is­land of Ire­land or in the Ir­ish Sea, with special cus­toms sta­tus for the north. May must choose. For the Demo­cratic Union­ist party, from whom the Tories bought a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity in June, the mar­itime op­tion is a non­starter. It looks like eco­nomic par­ti­tion of the UK.

The North­ern Ire­land prob­lem is writ­ten into Michel Barnier’s ne­go­ti­at­ing man­date as one of the three is­sues to be re­solved be­fore talks can progress on to the UK’s fi­nal sta­tus deal. (The other two are ex­pat cit­i­zens’ rights and bud­get obli­ga­tions.) That in­clu­sion re­flects Ire­land’s eco­nomic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties but also le­gal and moral obli­ga­tions, poorly un­der­stood in London, that the EU ac­cepts as a co-spon­sor of the Good Fri­day agree­ment. Pro­mot­ing peace and se­cu­rity by the di­lu­tion of bor­ders is a foun­da­tional prin­ci­ple of the whole Euro­pean project.

So Ir­ish lever­age over Brexit terms is at its high point right now, when there is ca­pac­ity to ob­struct progress to the next phase. As a leaked Euro­pean com­mis­sion doc­u­ment showed last week, Dublin is ap­ply­ing that pres­sure, call­ing for Bri­tain to stop waf­fling around its open bor­der com­mit­ments. The UK has not budged. Un­named min­is­ters told the Sun that the taoiseach, Leo Varad­kar, is yield­ing to un­rea­son­able de­mands by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.

Yes, Gove, John­son, Davis and May – they can see you. The rest of Europe is watch­ing your ab­surd, pan­ic­stricken squab­bles

At best, that was fail­ure to imag­ine a prime min­is­ter act­ing on a rea­son­able eval­u­a­tion of the op­tions in a process of ex­is­ten­tial im­por­tance to his coun­try. (With May in Down­ing Street maybe min­is­ters have for­got­ten what that looks like.) At worst, it was a ma­li­cious ef­fort to poi­son per­cep­tions of Ir­ish mo­tive by in­di­rect as­so­ci­a­tion with the IRA.

Ei­ther way, it ex­hib­ited the com­mon parochial weak­ness of Bri­tish politi­cians who for­get that peo­ple out­side the UK read English. I was in Ire­land last week, and can con­firm that the Sinn Féin al­lu­sion was no­ticed and its in­sid­i­ous in­fer­ence un­der­stood. It was surely picked up in Brus­sels, too. Poly­glot of­fi­cials mon­i­tor the un­hinged tone of UK tabloids and ob­serve its trans­mis­sion into gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

Yes, Gove, John­son, Davis and May – they can see you. The rest of Europe is watch­ing your ab­surd, panic-stricken squab­bles and lis­ten­ing to your blus­ter. They no­tice how obliv­i­ous you are to the con­se­quences of your ac­tions for coun­tries that once counted as your friends. They form judg­ments on the char­ac­ter of the regime with which they are deal­ing: its re­li­a­bil­ity, its sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. And this af­fects the talks. They see a coun­try fast de­gen­er­at­ing from trusted ally to night­mare neigh­bour.

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