“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable we have to change it every 6 months” as Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said. So it goes with the view of what Brexit will look like. Every foot deeper into the British economic grave reveals more legislative genocide. The many manifestations of Brexit spring from the ground – hard, soft, open, closed and grey. Even the comical red, white and blue. With the dissipation of Theresa Mays mandate along with the No Deal trend, soft Brexit appeared to be making a comeback. However Theresa Mays committal to the EU and to Hard Brexiteers that the UK will be closed to EU immigration is a line in the sand. Brexit means Brexit. It's going to be hard. And that line in the sand is going to be most obvious at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
A key moment in the Queens speech was the inclusion of the Immigration Bill under the Brexit umbrella. The British government will repeal the right of EU citizens to live and work in the UK. The rights who have already migrated – in both directions - looks set to be secured, in the short term at least. The rights of those yet to migrate across the Channel will be gone - a sea green Berlin wall which Trump could only wish for. The Tories wish to stick to their pledge of reducing net migration to 100,000 persons per annum. A figure they have quite some distance from as per Figure 1. Net migration end of year 2016 was at 248,000 persons.
Figure 1: Immigration, Emigration and Net Migration to the UK (both international and EU citizens). Note that emigration has gone up and immigration has gone down since Brexit referendum. Source: Office for National Statistics
Of this immigration proportion, EU citizens make up roughly 50% of immigrants as shown in Figure 2. The large increase in immigration since 2012 is a compounding number of factors including significant youth unemployment in the EU, Polish immigration and most recently Romanian immigration. In 2016, immigration from the EU2 (Romania and Bulgaria) and the EU8 (Poland, Baltics etc) made up almost 50% of immigrants coming to the UK. The cleaners and the fruit pickers are still coming in their droves and (if you believe it) driving British people out of their jobs.
Figure 2: Migration into the EU since 2006. The large drop in Non-EU citizens in 2011 was a result of change in the visa rules for international students wanting to work in the UK. Source: Office for National Statisticss
Happily for all those unemployed British people waiting in the wings to clean toilets and squat in a field for ten hours a day, the immigrant waves will soon be over. Theresa May has entered the bureaucratic bowels of the EU and bellowed her message. The United Kingdom is closed. Note the United Kingdom. Not just Britain. The United Kingdom implies that Northern Ireland is also to be included in this. And indeed it must be.
Or is there a marshmallow Maytopia of a hard Brexit and soft Border?
The Common Travel Area (CTA) means that there are no required passport checks between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and mainland Britain. This despite the fact that the Channel Islands are not actually in the EU, but part of the European Customs union ala Turkey as per Figure 3. That is a Brexit scenario which the United Kingdom has vehemently refused to take.
Now imagine a world where the UK has left the EU with a hard Brexit and immigration from the EU is shut off. In this world, miraculously Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have agreed a deal to keep the Common Travel Area. Just as the Tories like to proclaim it will be as seamless as going from Sweden to Norway (except that Norway is in the EEA as per Figure 3 and agrees to free movement of people so it’s a totally irrelevant point).
Figure 3: Who is in what
Imagine this world where a migrant from the dreaded Romania comes to Ireland for the fruit picking season to find jobs are slim pickings. Said migrant may traverse the Northern Irish border (without passport) and then travel onwards from Northern Ireland to mainland Britain without a passport. There is the reality that they will not be able to obtain a national insurance number and will have to work illegally. However as I’m sure many employers will be only too happy to oblige and not pay minimum wage. It will be impossible for the British to police as an unstamped passport will allow said Romanian to proclaim that they are on a (perennial) holiday. Their date of entry will be unknown. Which brings another reason why they must be a hard border between Norther Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
,And what of holiday makers?
There is an easy solution to the above scenario. Simply introduce passport control between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. Most likely the DUP will not enjoy that one. It won’t avoid the possible stream of illegal immigrants into Northern Ireland but it will keep them off the mainland, which is what really matters to the Tories.
In this world, a European tourist, a German for example, takes the autobahn from Dublin to Belfast for a holiday. As the UK is now outside the EU, he only has 90 days to visit the UK before he must be off. Much like a holiday to the USA. However there are no passport checks at the Northern Irish border in this fantasy world. He stays for 6 months before going onwards to Scotland for a 90 day sojourn. He then returns to Northern Ireland for another 6 months. He has spent well over a year in the UK without leaving whilst only being allowed 90 days. Again its only Northern Ireland right so who cares? Well the DUP one would have thought.
And what of trade?
Brexit means Brexit and Brexit will be hard. In its haste the find its bare feet in a new world, the United Kingdom will find itself with some off the shelf World Trade Organisation tariffs slapped upon their goods. This means that Northern Irish milk sold in the Republic of Ireland will immediately find itself ~36% more expensive overnight. Aha but not with any border controls! No self-respecting Northern Irish farmer will see himself go out of business due to declaration of his goods out of honesty. The DUP certainly wouldn’t want unhappy farmers. But they also cant condone milk smuggling. And it wont just be milk. Scottish whiskey, which makes up a not insignificant portion of Scottish GDP, will be slapped with heavy export tariffs. Given that one third of their whisky stays within the EU, this will be seriously damaging to their economy. There is significant profit to be made by simply sending whiskey to Northern Ireland and then driving across the unpoliced border and onto Dublin and perhaps the rest of the European Union.
Dundalk: Sold out of courgettes
In the topsy turvy world of currency exchange, the town of Dundalk in the ROI and Newry in NI have some extremely fierce supermarket sales. Cars loaded with booze, cigarettes, clothes and trolleys of cheap vegetables cross the border on a constant basis. In the Maytopia of hard Brexit and a soft border, Dundalk will be crawling with the Britishers craving cheap courgettes, like O Connell street in Dublin is crawling with heroine addicts. “I’ll give you anything man. Just a baby courgette. Will you take Scotch?"
The 15 mile stretch (or should that be 24km…) between Newry and Dundalk will be the most bizarre black market run seen in the developed world. A tariff free orgy will ensue. Milk will be chugged. Camembert cheese will be scoffed. Chorizo will be sizzled. Weiss beer will be swilled. And it will all be done in the back of a BMW.
Northern Ireland: Awash with BMWs?
In this Maytopia of a marshmallow soft border with no policing and no passport control, the Northern Irish will enjoy the comforts of German engineering at no extra cost. The DUP may like that. A Northern Irish person may only need to buy a BMW in the Republic of Ireland and drive it across the unpoliced border home. With ROI plates on the car, the police may notice no tariff has been paid on the car as it appears on their radar everyday. To which the driver replies that they simply live in the ROI and go back and forth everyday. Without any passport and tariff control, this is totally possible.
To say that everyone wants a soft border with free-flowing movement of goods is an obvious statement. Even the DUP are aligned on this. However such a statement were as if the entire EU table agreed that cake is splendidly tasty, only for Britain to interject that they were actually on a diet, and a zero calorie free version that tasted just as good was their desire. Unfortunately, that much used statement is true - you cannot have your cake and eat it. If the UK is to pursue its' anti-immigration commitments, then a hard Brexit is inevitable. And she will soon send the nation of coalition partners into a wild west hinterland without policing or passport control.
That is truly a coalition of chaos.