Trip to the invisible border: Brussels endures the British fight for Ireland

No controls, no ‘Welcome’ signs. Nothing on the road between Dundalk (Republic of Ireland, single market) and Newry (British territory) indicates that it has crossed from one country to another. Only the change from kilometers to miles and some signs against Brexit or in favor of the unity of the island reflect the invisible border through which some 35,000 citizens pass every day to go to work or shop.

They do not have to take out their passports or account for what they transport, because the British divorce from the European Union included a Protocol to avoid a physical border along those almost 500 kilometers that divide the island.

Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remains linked to the single market and, therefore, subject to community rules. In return, controls are carried out in Northern Irish ports. This is an attempt to prevent products traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from ending up in European territory (through the Republic of Ireland) without the relevant phytosanitary inspections.

“I pass by here several times every day and I don’t think the tensions will end up raising a physical border.” The driver of the bus that takes us from Dundalk to Newry is convinced that Boris Johnson’s last push to Brussels, threatening to blow up protocol, will not be in favor of the British Prime Minister.

He doesn’t feel like talking about what ‘Brexit’ has meant for him, but – a true reflection of the kindness of the Irish – he doesn’t mind us asking him, or photographing the path that takes us to British territory, together to schoolchildren and citizens from both sides of the border.

«Many factories in London are short of staff and this affects the entire production chain»

That feeling of calm is also evident by the employees of a pharmacy in the north and a small fruit shop installed in Newry’s Central Market. Their main suppliers are local or Irish, so they do not depend as much on what comes from Great Britain to supply them.

«There were more problems at the beginning of Brexit, with empty supermarket shelves, but it has been improving. It is not difficult to get meat either, although we think we will have more problems before Christmas, when the demand for turkeys increases. Niamh works in a popular butcher shop in the center of this town located about 50 minutes from Belfast. From the local Downey’s Butcher & Deli he relates how in the northernmost regions of the island they may have had more problems, which last April were reflected in an uptick in street altercations that awakened the ghosts of the harshest years of violence.

After leaving work, and while inside her father continues working on the chickens and sausages in the windows, Niamh accompanies us with her car to some parts of the county where the political gibberish that has always surrounded the region continues to be evident. There are party posters that advocate for the unity of the island, for the referendum. And there remains some trace – the least – against ‘Brexit’. After all, we must remember that on this side of the border 56% of the population voted to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.

«I am against ‘Brexit’, particularly because of Ireland’s proximity to the United Kingdom. But it’s not just me; “The majority of people in the North of Ireland are against it, the Government does not represent us,” says Kevin, who agrees with this view which suggests that in areas like Belfast the situation is somewhat more complicated. Closer to the border, things seem different and are far removed from the supply crisis that in recent weeks has left images of long queues at gas stations in Great Britain, fights or empty shelves in supermarkets.

Of course, everyone agrees that the consequences of ‘Brexit’ have been felt in a rise in prices that has been accentuated by the labor shortage after the divorce. “Many factories there are short of staff and that affects the entire production chain,” they say.

The European Commission is aware that the Irish Protocol is not the panacea to facilitate trade in the area. It doesn’t come as a surprise to them. “Boris Johnson has sold that the exit was going to be all benefits and no disadvantages, but the EU has always made it very clear that withdrawal implied being a third country for all purposes,” says Inmaculada Rodríguez-Piñero, MEP for the PSOE.

The message is that Europe will not do anything that could jeopardize social peace in Ireland. Hence, its latest offer includes an 80% reduction in merchandise controls and greater flexibility to address complicated bureaucratic paperwork. But Johnson wants to go further. He now demands a drastic modification of the protocol that they themselves signed and which officially came into force in January 2021.

Among other things, and in addition to eliminating customs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it proposes that if merchants declare that the products remain in the British province, they should not undergo any type of control. Something that makes some sense if it weren’t for the fact that the prime minister has failed to comply with many of the points agreed with Brussels. Sources consulted recognize it: “He is an unreliable person.” So the European Union does not want to risk leaving the entire zone free of passage, given the risk that these products will finally reach the single market, without controls, via Northern Ireland.

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But the most controversial point, and one on which the Commission is not willing to give an inch, is Downing Street’s intention for Northern Ireland to remain outside the control of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), which is, among others, the one who monitors that the ‘Brexit’ pacts are fulfilled.

This possibility is unaffordable for Brussels. A red line in which harder positions regarding British demands are already beginning to appear. «If we accept a break in the protocol, I don’t know where the European project would be. Controls can be made more flexible, but eliminating them is impossible. The pacts are there to be fulfilled,” summarizes popular MEP José Manuel García-Margallo. “The environment is very delicate and the important thing is to reach an agreement, because it would be setting a very dangerous precedent: we have 45 association agreements with third countries,” he recalls.

Ciudadanos MEP Jordi Cañas agrees in the same sense, believing that the current situation is the consequence of “constructing a political argument from a lie.” In his opinion, the European Union will from now on maintain a flexible but firm position, where the objective will be to ensure that Northern Ireland does not become a free passage zone for British exports to the EU.

“The limit is that we are not going to negotiate a new Protocol and if the United Kingdom decides to abandon it it will have consequences, and not only because the conflict in Northern Ireland is fueled,” the Commission warns.

The ball is now in Boris Johnson’s office, under political pressure from the unionists to break the agreement. “We have been very generous with the Northern Ireland Protocol so as not to harm relations, but we have a limit,” they insist from Brussels. That is, there will be retaliation if Johnson decides to unilaterally cancel the Northern Irish pact. “You either put the border in the sea or you put it on the land, but they must be aware of the political problem that would be unleashed for the citizens of Northern Ireland by physically dividing the island,” they indicate.

They are clear that Europe will not be the one to break the deck. But they no longer rule out anything. Not even that Johnson activates the famous article 16 of the protocol that allows both the United Kingdom and the EU to adopt measures unilaterally if their application “gives rise to serious economic, social or environmental difficulties that may persist or divert trade.” Even so, that article does not give the right to suspend the entire agreement completely. Only take specific measures allowing the other party to take their own proportionally. And all subject to independent arbitration.

“If you asked me a few months ago, I would tell you that it is impossible for something like this to happen… but the experience of recent times in the negotiations with London shows us that it is not unreasonable either,” say consulted sources.

It is not just about putting pressure on Brussels. Boris Johnson’s intention with his latest commercial push would be to gain voter support at a time when parties like Sinn Fein continue to rise like foam in the heat of a proposal for a referendum for a united Ireland. And, from what is said in some neighborhoods, the feeling that is beginning to permeate Northern Ireland is also that Downing Street is using the territory for its own political objectives.

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