I’ve spent the best part of the past week in the UK meeting political, diplomatic, business, banking and community leaders on Brexit. I’ve sat in on Westminster debate and consulted senior security officials on Northern Ireland. And that’s the question that comes to mind.
The unstoppable force is the UK government’s current Brexit trajectory. They’re leaving the single market. They’re leaving the customs union. This is a choice – the referendum spoke only to the UK leaving the EU, and inferred no democratic imperative regarding the single market or customs union.  
The logic for leaving the single market was set out in Prime Minister May’s Article 50 letter, and goes something like this: The EU’s single market is characterised by four core freedoms, for people, goods, services and capital. While the UK would very much like to retain some of these, it can no longer allow EU nationals free access to the UK’s labour market. The UK recognises that the four freedoms are indivisible, and so, regrettably, must leave the entire single market.
The hard Brexiteers have a second reason for leaving the single market, which is to decouple from EU regulations, which cover areas including workers’ rights, environmental protections, animal welfare and food quality. Theirs is a free-market ideology and they want to set the power of the great British market free. We have several decades of evidence that such an economic approach leads to enormous social and economic damage. I believe it’s helping drive drive the destabilisation of Western society. The free marketeers would disagree of course.
The UK’s logic for leaving the customs union goes something like this – the UK will maintain its current access to the EU’s markets, and then go about the world negotiating superior trade deals that put Britain first (and I mean Britain – Northern Ireland doesn’t feature much in the Brexit debate in the UK – just look at what they’re calling it). This argument regarding new global trade deals is difficult to understand. The UK already has significant global access via the EU. But on its own? It’s a fraction the size of the EU, geographically more isolated, increasingly politically isolated, highly dependent on imports, and hasn’t negotiated a trade deal in more than 40 years. There has been talk of a brave new deal with the US. But the White House is currently occupied by a man so averse to trade deals that he’s trying to dismantle NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and trying to build a wall along the Mexican border.
And yet, the UK government is relentlessly pursuing exiting both the single market and customs union. So much so that it is now trapped by its own rhetoric. It has promised the British people a brave new future of prosperity fuelled by global trade and lower regulations.
So what of the immovable force? That would be the EU. The integrity of the European project must be protected. Were the UK to retain full market access for goods, services and capital, while opting out on people, what other EU members states might decide to start picking and choosing? What of the countries trying to join the EU, all of whom are being required to sign up to the EU in its totality? Were the UK free to negotiate its own trade deals, while essentially enjoying those of the EU as well, why wouldn’t others try the same approach? If the UK doesn’t have to sign up to the common fisheries policy, opting instead to take back more of its territorial waters, with no consequences, why would any EU member pay attention to collective agreements? In the UK could opt out on workers’ rights and environmental projections, why wouldn’t others?
So where does that leave us? The UK insists it can leave the customs union while avoiding any new border controls around Northern Ireland. But if goods can enter Belfast and Dublin with different tariffs, huge profits can be made moving those goods across the border undetected. Such profits would fund paramilitary activity in the North. And so the border would need to be policed in some way. Which would lead to a nationalist community in Northern Ireland not only being removed from Europe against their will, but having a fence put up around them – recruiting heaven for (now well funded) dissidents.
The UK also insists it can decouple from EU regulations and enjoy free access to goods and services markets. In cannot. Any difference will be seized upon by one side or the other as evidence of unfair competition, along with demands for tariffs and other trade barriers…leading back to border controls.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? It’s called the ‘irresistible force paradox.’ There is no solution, as both entities cannot exist at the same time. In a DC comic book, the question was put to Superman (I learned that on Wikipedia, promise), and he replied, ‘They both surrender’. Which is what we need to see a little of here.
The UK needs to accept that leaving the customs union, or ‘a’ customs union, creates a material threat to the peace process, as well as the potential for enormous economic damage in the UK and Ireland. It needs to challenge the rhetoric of great new trade deals and dreadful EU regulations. Critically, this needs to come from within the Tory Party, as the Labour Party seems to be in this space already.
At the same time, the EU needs to work with the UK to create sufficient political space for the UK government to alter its demands, and create a convincing and genuine narrative for the British people. It would help if the EU acknowledged, for example, the enormous inward migration that the UK, and in particular England, has experienced in recent years. It would help if the EU accelerated its own thinking on internal labour migration, which is kicked off, unfortunately, after David Cameron was sent back to London without a sufficient win to quell the voices of the Brexiteers. Ireland has a role to play in this. We are unambiguously negotiating on the side of the EU27. However, we are uniquely close to the UK, culturally, politically and economically. And we are at a level of risk from the current impasse that other EU members simply are not. And so we need to, carefully, help create the space to overcome the current Brexit situation. An unstoppable force and immovable object cannot both exist.
This article origionally appeared in the Wicklow Voice on September 14th, 2017