As we near the Brexit End game – we are now only 40 days away from the legally mandated day of departure – there appear to be murmurings from Europe of a possible solution: Irish annexation. This could cause mayhem for Ireland’s immigration policy.
The United Kingdom has made it clear from day one that under no circumstances would it erect physical infrastructure in Northern Ireland – this respects the Good Friday Agreement and allows for continued free movement of goods, whether or not the EU likes it. Ireland has said the same. The EU has flitted between saying it would never erect a hard border and saying it would have no choice.
Mutterings printed in yesterday’s Irish Independent editorial references comments from the Polish Prime Minister that the EU had, “…treated the UK harshly.” – and a ‘…frankly chilling interview with someone described as a, 'Senior EU diplomat' who said that the EU may kick Ireland out of the single market if it doesn’t erect a hard border.'
In such a scenario, a border between Ireland and mainland Europe would mean that customs checks would take place on all goods (and people) coming in to the EU from Ireland. This would open up a huge can of worms for visas for tourists and business travellers wishing to enter Ireland and then head to other EU countries. The immigration picture may be about to become very murky.
Why would Germany budge?
The economic headwinds in Europe mean that a hard Brexit would severely impact manufacturing and confidence in EU countries. Italy is already in recession. Germany skated on thin ice with a 2018 Q3 retraction and a Q4 ‘growth’ rate of 0.0%. If Germany falls in to 'official' recession, it could focus the minds of policy makers with regards the ‘Irish backstop’. If the backstop is dealt with, the withdrawal agreement goes through and Germany's cars can continue to roll over to the UK tarriff free. That's a win-win for Irish business travellers and tourists, German cars and Britain's ability to get out of the backstop.
Is Britain Ready for No Deal?
Dr. Liam Fox (the UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade) last week signed a little-discussed £35 billion trade deal with Switzerland. This week he signed a deal with the US: these arrangements enable trade to continue in the event of a no-deal exit. In today’s Daily Telegraph, Dr. Fox says, “How would European countries explain to their electorates that there was a proposal from Britain to get agreement, by altering the backstop, which was then rejected on ideological grounds, when the consequence of that could be that you saw recession spreading to the people of Europe?”
To make matters worse for Brussels, there are a series of national general elections in 2019, in addition to full EU elections for MEP’s. An extension of Article 50 would mean that British MEP’s would remain in the EU and stand for election – which opens a rather sizeable can of worms – particularly now that Nigel Farage has launched his Brexit Party, which would contest the elections on a fully national scale. Extending article 50 would be a logistical nightmare - and cause enormous domestic problems for the Prime Minister and her already fractured Party.
What about freedom of movement between Ireland and the EU?
For now, the ball is in the EU's court. Britain has made its position clear: if the UK can get resolution of the backstop then they will give their agreement to the whole of the withdrawal process to continue. Therein lies the solution. Brussels must now choose between making minor allowances to its 'indivisible' freedoms to allow the withdrawal agreement to pass; or it must deal with Ireland and the hard border.
What could it mean for EU travellers heading to the Republic of Ireland over the next two months? Who knows what sort of visa they’ll need. A smmoth exit would mean that its business as usual - but if the EU refuses to budge, freedom of movement may not turn out to be quite so free.