British proposals on Brexit too little, too late?

British proposals on Brexit too little, too late?
Screening of "Troubles of Brexit" at Press Club Brussels

Brexit is only four weeks away and the European Council only two weeks.

Yesterday afternoon, the British government presented its much-awaited proposal for solving the remaining sticking point concerning the Irish backstop. The European Commission welcomed the proposal but said that the proposal includes problematic points that need to be clarified by the UK.

UK's latest proposal includes a legal text, explanatory note and letter from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and is currently analysed by the European Commission. What seems to be missing in the proposal is how the integrity of the single market will be preserved without customs controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It is a dilemma that seems to defy any solution.

At today’s press briefing in Brussels, the Commission spokesperson declined to confirm whether the proposal can serve as a basis for negotiations. “We are prepared to work with our British friends on the text but it’s up to Britain to clarify the proposal,” according to the spokesperson.

In his statement yesterday (2 October), following a telephone call with the British Prime Minister, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker noted “positive advances with regards to the full regulatory alignment for all goods and the control of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.”

However, he also noted that there are still “some problematic point that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop”.

He stressed that “we must have a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop: preventing a hard border, preserving North-South cooperation and the all-island economy, and protecting the EU's Single Market and Ireland's place in it”.

The consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement from April 1998 that ended the “troubles”, or rather civil war there, were also discussed today at a press conference at Press Club Brussels, where Bertelsmann Stiftung and Bertelsmann Foundation North America screened the documentary “The Troubles with Brexit”.

The filmed painted a terrible picture of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The whole region became a war zone and was practically under occupation by the British army and fighting militias. After 40 years of conflict, the Good Friday agreement ushered in a period of relative peace and stability but the situation is still fragile.

All this risks coming to an end if a hard border will be reinstalled between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a constituent part of UK. Anthony Silberfeld, producer of the documentary and director at Bertelsmann Foundation, said that much more is at stake than the legal or technical issues concerning customs and borders.

The Irish issue was largely ignored in the Brexit referendum and no majority for Brexit was required in all four constituent parts of the UK.

“It’s a matter of war and peace,” Silberfeld said. The people interviewed in the film echoed his fears that Brexit will mean not only a blow to the economy of Northern Ireland but will threaten to reignite the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland in the past.

The Good Friday Agreement was built on the principle of consent by all parties to the conflict and accords them the right to decide on a united Ireland in the future. An unintended consequence of Brexit might be that a majority in Northern Ireland, including former pro-Brexit Protestants, will vote to unite with the rest of Ireland and continue to enjoy the economic benefits of staying in the EU.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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