Sunday, December 3, 2017


A large number of Czech voters in October's parliamentary elections chose parties that are, at a minimum, somewhat leery of the EU, and at the other end openly hostile to the organization. That adds to the interest in following the progress of Brexit through the Czech press.

If I were being more thorough about this as a study of the press, I would read more widely, but as it is, there's a limit on how much willful stupidity I can absorb before completely going out of my mind, and I need to keep some of that capacity for reading Facebook comments on Mike Flynn's plea deal, so I generally limit my local reading to things on the logically consistent end of the spectrum.

Last week Respekt provided an article from The Economist that laid out the logic of the situation surrounding the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. (That's merely where I encountered it; the coverage obviously isn't unique to that publication, since Britske listy just presented a similar summary in translation from The Guardian). The underlying reality was merely implicit in the Respekt article, but it was spelled out more fully in The Guardian.

Consider two political entities that agree to have the same rules about business: the same standards for food and product safety, the same provision for worker safety and pensions, the same conventions for product labeling etc. In that case, the two entities can open up the border between them.

On the other hand, if there are too many differences in their business rules, they need a border. Country A could make products that violate Country B's standards - they're unsafe, or their made under working conditions the second party finds unacceptable, etc. - but Country A could still take its products across the open border, thus undercutting the standards and the businesses in Country B.

That means that there are only three outcomes for the question of the Irish border:
  1. The entire UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves behind the EU trading rules, so there has to be a border in Ireland.
  2. "Mainland" Britain (i.e., England, Scotland, and Wales) leave the EU trading rules, but Northern Ireland stays in compliance, so there need not be a border within Ireland. On the other hand, that means there would in effect be a trade border between different parts of the UK.
  3. The entire UK stays in compliance with the EU trading rules, so there's no need to have a border within Ireland, nor between Ireland and Britain.
The problem with Option 2 is that Theresa May's government is dependent upon a hard-line unionist party that will have no part of a step that would weaken the ties between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The problem with Option 3 is that it would wipe out one of the supposed reasons for doing Brexit in the first place. The UK, would have gone from complying with EU rules while being an important one of the 28 countries that make the rules, to having to comply with the rules while having no say in their creation whatsoever.

The problem with Option 1 is that it brings the real risk of a return to The Troubles, the rather soft-pedaled description of the violence in Northern Ireland in the 1970's and 1980's. In 1997, the Good Friday accord allowed Ireland to move beyond that, and a key component was the open border between the two parts of the island.

More immediately, the Irish government doesn't want a return of the border (partly because of the risk of violence), and since it's an EU member with no plans to leave, the EU is quite understandably backing up Ireland's demand.

Earlier this week I was discussing the Brexit-and-Ireland question with a colleague here, and was surprised to learn that he was fairly sanguine about the situation. "I'm sure they'll figure something out."

But I don't see what there is to figure out. I don't see how the underlying logic of borders and business rules allows for any outcome other than the three listed above. And the second and third are politically disastrous for the UK government, while the first is more existentially disastrous for the people of Ireland (both parts), and to some extent the people of Britain as well.

The Economist article made a useful connection between the EU and the success of the Good Friday accord:
By freeing the residents of Northern Ireland from the need to choose "either / or" - Britain, or Ireland - they helped put to sleep all the demons of the past. But the Brits' decision to leave the EU has torn apart this constructive uncertainty. Sometimes it's better to leave certain questions unanswered. But Brexit has made that impossible.*
There's a larger lesson here about the right size of political units. My entry into economics was via the writings of Fritz Schumacher, Wendell Berry, and Václav Havel, writers who emphasize the importance of the small and the local.

This has left me with a residual suspicion of large political structures. There are ways in which democracy works better in smaller units, where people are closer to the problems being solved and are likely to know and share perspectives with a larger portion of their fellow voters.

But smaller isn't automatically better. The Irish problem is a stark case of how joining a larger whole can turn unsolvable problems into non-issues.

The older I get, I see fewer answers in general principles and increasingly find myself forced into grappling with the messy realities of life.

*This is my translation back into English of Respekt's translation into Czech of the original article. Maybe at some point I'll look up the original to see what got changed in the process.

No comments:

Post a Comment