The Irish border question is fiendishly complicated and impossible to fathom. Or is it?

[This piece was originally written in the format of a Twitter thread and has been minorly edited and corrected.] 

The key sentence for me in the article published in Prospect Magazine, “Free movement of people or a sea border: the insoluble Brexit dilemma”, is the very first one.

“Often in life we allow ourselves to be consumed by the complexity of a problem while ignoring the basic simplicity which transcends it.”

Remember all those times UK commentators and politicians told us that the Irish border question was fiendishly complicated and impossible to fathom?

In fact the issues are incredibly simple.

Any undergraduate who has studied the basics of trade policy and understands the difference between a Customs Union and an Free Trade Agreement could explain to you why you will always have border controls without a Customs Union.

And anyone who remembers the “1992 Programme”💬 which gave us the Single Market understands that one of the major points of the SM was to create regulatory alignment, so as to remove the need for the border controls that still remained, CU or not.

And so it follows logically that to avoid border controls in Ireland, Northern Ireland has to effectively remain in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods. This is not rocket science, folks.

And it also follows logically that if there are not to be controls in ports on goods passing between the islands of Britain and Ireland, Britain will also have to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods. Again, that is not rocket science.

The only issue then becomes whether Great Britain (as opposed to Northern Ireland) would be allowed to remain in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods only. That seems unlikely, though the possibility always struck me as worth exploring. Especially since the European Union runs a surplus in goods trade with the UK. But no matter.

Back to the main point: when it comes to the issue of avoiding border controls in Ireland, there is nothing at all fiendishly complicated about the question. It is in fact a fiendishly simple question.

It only becomes complicated if you try to avoid basic facts, logic, and necessary choices. Then the question does indeed become complicated, in much the same way as achieving levitation, or inventing a perpetual motion machine, is complicated.

While some British commentators may enjoy getting in touch with their inner Heath Robinson💬, the rest of Europe has to live in the real world. Where the issues are relatively straightforward and unfudgable.

Ireland cannot stop the UK from walking away without a deal. But the EU27 can make the avoidance of a border a condition of any deal.🔷

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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)

(Cover: Pixabay.)



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Chichele Professor of Economic History at All Souls College, Oxford. Research Director of CEPR. Fellow of the British Academy. Member of the Royal Irish Academy. Research Associate of the NBER.

Oxford, UK. Articles in PMP Magazine Website