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Brexit has saddled its champions with an impossible dilemma

March 5, 2021, 10:49 AM UTC

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Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

Perhaps some good will come of Brexit, at some point. But for now, its core incongruities are causing an unholy mess.

At the center of the mess is Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that has a land border with the EU. That fact has put the U.K.’s Brexiteer administration in an impossible position: given that it rejected staying in a customs union with the EU, customs checks have to go somewhere, but every option is a bad one.

The checks can’t go on the land border, because a hard border would threaten the apparently-still-quite-fragile Good Friday peace agreement, struck in 1998 between the unionists/loyalists who favor Northern Ireland staying part of the U.K., and the republicans who want to join Ireland. So, under the Brexit withdrawal agreement that took effect a year ago, Boris Johnson’s government agreed to put the customs checks in the sea between the province and the island of Great Britain.

Unionists hate this, because it means treating Northern Ireland differently from other parts of the U.K. And so, two days ago, a bunch of loyalist paramilitary groups—yes, they’re still around, as are republican paramilitaries—withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement until the U.K. and EU agree to allow “unfettered access for goods, services, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom.” They said they will stay peaceful for now, but warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the peace deal will suffer “permanent destruction” if they don’t get their way.

But, in trying to keep those goods moving across the new, marine customs border, Johnson’s government has managed to enrage the EU—with different, negative consequences now hoving into view.

When the Brexit transition period ended at the start of this year, the sudden need for filling out lots of paperwork caused serious problems in the flow of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland. The U.K. asked the EU for a two-year extension to the grace periods for Irish Sea border checks, but the EU said no, so—also on Wednesday—the U.K. said it was unilaterally extending those grace periods.

The European Commission had a fit, pointing out that this was the second time the U.K. was reneging on very recent commitments. There could be legal consequences for this, but, more urgently, the European Parliament has now postponed its ratification of the Brexit trade deal that was agreed at the last minute before the transition period ended.

The message is clear: honor the withdrawal agreement, including its intra-U.K. border checks, or thin-deal Brexit becomes the no-deal Brexit everyone was worried about.

There’s no pleasing everybody in this situation, and either side’s displeasure comes with very real and unpredictable consequences. And that’s what happens when you claim an extremely complex and equilibrium-shattering proposition is as simple as a slogan. “Get Brexit done”? That’s been achieved. But we still don’t know the cost.

More news below.

David Meyer


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This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.