The Irish border issue is at heart a very simple one, albeit often clouded and complicated by the recent past. That’s not to say that the Good Friday agreement and the long period of violence before it aren’t important, nor that they do not make the situation in Ireland unique; it’s more about saying that they can obscure what is at base a very simple and straightforward question of more general application. And that is this: where there is a border between two countries, there are only two options – the first is that the two are part of a single customs/regulatory regime, and the other is that there are border controls. It’s possible, of course, to be part of the same customs/regulatory regime and still maintain border controls, and some countries within the EU choose to do that. But what is not possible is to have different customs/regulatory regimes and no controls, because in such a scenario it becomes impossible to maintain the integrity of either of the customs/regulatory regimes. And all of this is as true for a sea border as a land border; land borders are just naturally more ‘porous’.
From that point of view, there is nothing particularly unique about the situation in Ireland; the unique part is the strength of the drivers for seeking to avoid a border with controls. The Brexiteers know all this, and know that their demand for a different customs/regulatory regime has the inevitable consequence of creating a border with controls. All the talk about ‘smart’ systems to facilitate border crossings is about minimising the impact of those controls, not about avoiding them. Their preferred solution, albeit one that only a few of them are prepared to advocate openly, is that the Republic accompanies the UK to the exit door; it’s the only way in which they can both maintain their red lines about regulatory divergence and at the same time avoid border controls completely. After all, the two countries entered the EU together, and it was that simple fact which enabled the ‘Common Travel Area’ to continue after accession, even if it took the Good Friday agreement to abolish the physical controls at the border.
This is relevant in the context of yesterday’s post about the future of the UK after Brexit. What is true for the border between the two parts of Ireland is also true for the border between Wales and England. Ultimately, Wales can either be part of the same customs/regulatory regime as England, or we can have border controls along the Dyke. As long as both countries are part of the EU’s Customs/regulatory regime, it’s not an issue. Outside the EU, as long as both countries remain locked in alignment, again, it’s not an issue. But if Wales were to become ‘independent’, our ability to choose to seek membership of either the EU or the closely-aligned EFTA/EEA would be effectively ruled out by the need to remain in alignment with England – unless we were willing to implement border controls between the two countries. I can’t foresee a situation in which border controls make any sense for Wales, and given the relative size of England in any conceivable reconfiguration of the UK, that means that we will be ‘rule-takers’ most of the time.
It isn’t that which concerns me most, however; after all, as an advocate of continuing membership of the EU I have to accept that rules are made collectively and that there are some that we might not like (although we’d at least have an input before they were made, unlike at present). The bigger concern is that if England decides to increasingly cut itself off from mainstream Europe, and try and pretend that the UK is still a great power ruling the waves, then we are going to be part of that, regardless of any nominal ‘independence’, or the precise way in which the UK is reconfigured. That isn’t the sort of ‘independence’ which I want for Wales.