With the isolationist wing of the governing Conservative Party in Britain determined to take the country out of the European Union, and the allied ethnocentrists of the Democratic Unionist Party hoping for a fractious exit from the EU and the revival of a “hard border” to undo two decades of “soft reunification” in Ireland, optimism seems to be in short supply across the Continent. If the United Kingdom was to take a logical route to its desired version of a rapacious or “full” Brexit, it would do so by giving up the historical anomaly which is the final outpost of its first and last overseas colony. However since the UK’s rejection of Europe is partly driven by nostalgic – and entirely illogical – dreams of an empire restored, such a move looks unlikely. So the next best thing may well be the creation of a maritime “customs border” between both island nations.
Tom Hayes and Derek Mooney suggest that this could be done by declaring the British-administered Six Counties a “Special Economic Zone” with limited customs checks on either side of the Irish Sea. They point out that there are many political and territorial precedents for such an arrangement, including some devised by Britain itself.
Many countries have special economic zones. For example, Mexico has such zones along the border with the US. Ireland used to have the Shannon Duty Free Zone around Shannon airport. China has two different systems, one in mainland China, one in Hong Kong. Indeed, the UK was instrumental is designing the “one country, two systems” when it handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese.
As Professor John Barry from Queens University points out in this paper there are already differences within the UK today, and between GB and NI.
If differences between GB and NI are not a matter of principle, which they cannot be because differences already exist, then differences become a matter of pragmatic judgement.
If NI were to be a special economic zone then people in NI would have all the economic benefits they have from being in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union that they have today, along with unfettered access to the UK market, and still retain the constitutional and political options they have today.
The problem for those putting forward workable solutions to the current impasse between Brussels and London is the inconsistent and arguably irrational conduct of the latter capital. Of course, the Brexit vote itself was in many ways an irrational act, driven by a form of populist xenophobia and chauvinism which has been simmering away in the United Kingdom since the 1970s. The 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union brought that toxic brew to the boil and those who have drunk from it, a sizeable proportion of the country’s population, are not amenable to predictable forms of behaviour.
If Ireland’s past experiences with the British state – with Greater England – are any guide, and they should be, then we have very little reason for hope. At least in the short to medium term.