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Johnson Promised Brexit—But May Deliver Engxit

David Frum
LONDON—Just before lunchtime on October 17, 2019, Britain and the European Union announced a deal on a smooth British exit from the EU. This is the second such deal in less than a year. The previous deal was rejected by Parliament and capsized the career of former Prime Minister Theresa May. Will this new deal come to a happier conclusion? And what is happiness in this context anyway?

The new agreement is reportedly 500 pages long, recapitulating most of the elements of the rejected 2018 agreement. There is, again reportedly, one big difference between May’s deal and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s: Ireland. (The word reportedly is doing a lot of work here, because I write only a few minutes after the agreement was announced and before the release of the full text.)

Ireland! Always Ireland. For nearly 150 years, disputes over Ireland have broken British governments, wrecked British parties, and sparked guerrilla war and terrorism on the two islands. The issue seemed to have been settled forever by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Brexit revived the Irish issue, in all its ancient intractability.

The core of the problem is this: Once the United Kingdom quits the EU, there will be a border between the U.K. and the EU. That’s the point of the whole exercise after all, to insert a border. No border, no Brexit.

But where should the border be placed? “Britain” is an island, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland straddles two islands, creating a land border between the U.K. and the EU. That land border runs jaggedly around the northeastern quadrant of Ireland. Northern Ireland is only about 180 kilometers from water to water, but the winding Irish boundary bobbles up and down and around for 500 kilometers—longer than the entire French-German border!

Reinserting the border between the two Irelands will not only impose a terrible economic burden, but also endanger the hard-won peace on the island of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement created an economic and human unity among Irish people, ending three decades of terrorist violence. Few wish to return to the old divisions, to checkpoints and armed guards—and to the risk of armed attack on those checkpoints and guards.

During the 2016 referendum, Johnson and other eminent Leavers promised that the border could be enforced unobtrusively. There would be no checkpoints, no targets for terrorists. New technology would collect taxes and prevent smuggling in a way lawful travelers and businesspeople would never notice.

That concept sounded suspiciously too good to be true to the EU negotiators. They demanded a so-called backstop: All right, United Kingdom, go ahead with your magic technology! But until it’s up and working, both islands—Ireland and Britain—will remain inside the EU’s trade and tariff border.

It was this backstop that wrecked the May government.

But if the border is not carved across Ireland—or drawn around both Ireland and Britain together—then there remains only one other place it can plausibly go: down the Irish Sea between Ireland and Britain. And this is what Johnson appears to have agreed to today.

A lot of rhetoric is being expended to obscure this concession, but this is what seems to have been conceded. And what a concession it is!

Since the 1880s, a crucial part of the identity of the Conservative Party of Great Britain has been the defense of the union between Britain and as much of Ireland as wished to remain attached to Britain. For this cause, Britain fought a war against the Irish Republican Army from 1919 to 1921, then endured a terrorist campaign by a revived IRA after 1969. Over 30 years, 3,500 people lost their lives in the Irish Troubles, including more than 1,000 British soldiers and police. The Good Friday Agreement preserved Northern Ireland as a constituent element of the United Kingdom, a decisive victory of the union cause.

The reported EU-U.K. deal continues the political union between Britain and Northern Ireland, but it apparently severs the economic union. Northern Ireland will have one customs and value-added-tax regime; Britain another. If Britain enters into, say, a free-trade agreement with the United States, Northern Ireland apparently will not. Over time, under this agreement as reported, Northern Ireland will be subsumed into ever closer union with the Irish Republic and the European Union.

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