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The Irish Border

History never leaves Ireland alone. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the lethal alliance of the Conservative Party in Britain and the Unionist Party, which represented the Protestant minority in Ireland, made it impossible for the British parliament to pass a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.

A Home Rule Bill might have let the two countries take their distance peacefully and gradually, while retaining close links – or maybe not, but it was worth a try. Instead came the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the Irish War of Independence, the partition of the island between the independent Republic and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), the Irish Civil War, and three decades of terrorist war in Northern Ireland that only ended 20 years ago.

Well, the Conservatives and the Unionists are back in coalition now, and another war is brewing on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. At the moment it’s practically an invisible frontier, with no border posts or customs checks, because both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic belong to the European Union. Brexit, however, will put an end to that, and probably to peace as well.

In principle, Britain flouncing out of the EU shouldn’t hurt anybody except the British themselves, but the UK’s Irish border is a nightmare. Prime Minister Theresa May has sworn a mighty oath that the United Kingdom will leave both the ‘single market’ and the customs union, but that will turn this ‘soft’ frontier into a ‘hard’ EU border with a non-EU country: border guards, customs checks, passports, queues and all the rest.

What made the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 possible was the promise that the border between the two Irelands would practically disappear, which allowed the Catholic nationalists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to believe that their war had not been just a futile struggle that killed 3,000 people. They could dream that with all the coming and going across an open border, the two parts of Ireland would grow closer and eventually reunite.

Recreate a hard border and they will feel cheated. Not all the militants of the IRA will pick up their guns again, but some almost certainly will. It was very hard to stop the first time, and there is no particular reason why a renewed war couldn’t last another thirty years and kill thousands more.

Presumably Theresa May does not want to see this, and the EU recently offered her a way out. If you must go, they said, then leave the inner Irish border open and put your customs and immigration controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (which are conveniently separated by the Irish Sea).

Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union and nobody would be stopped at its land border with the Republic. Customs and immigration checks would only happen at Northern Irish ports and airports, when people or goods have crossed or are going to cross the Irish Sea. It makes as much sense as anything can within the context of Brexit – but May has to reject it.

She must reject that offer because she lost her parliamentary majority in the election she needlessly called last June, and remains in power only thanks to the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party – i.e., the hard-line Protestants of Northern Ireland. And the DUP, always terrified that Britain will abandon them, simply will not allow any kind of border, however soft, to be put between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

May cannot defy the DUP on this or her government will fall – and the Conservatives would probably lose the subsequent election, putting her nemesis, the dreaded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in power.

However, if May insists on leaving the EU customs union, there will have to be a ‘hard’ border – and if there is, says Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he will veto any negotiations between the EU and the UK on a free trade deal after it leaves the Union.

Theresa May is finally cornered, and the United Kingdom may end up ‘crashing out’ of the EU with no deal at all. The UK can then spend the next decade trying to renegotiate on less favourable terms the 59 trade deals it now enjoys with other countries as a member of the EU – and, more likely than not, dealing with a renewed IRA insurgency in Northern Ireland.

Or May could aim for a deal that keeps the UK in the customs union. Then the border would remain open, and there would be no Irish veto, and a reasonable deal on post-Brexit trade would be possible. But that would split the Conservative Party, and avoiding that is far more important to her than all these other issues.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Northern…it”)

A Short Generation in Scotland

Maybe they reach sexual maturity very young in Scotland. What else could explain the fact that they are going to have another referendum on Scottish independence only three years after the last one?

The Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation event. That was the one thing that then-British Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond agreed on: even a one-vote majority would settle the matter for a generation.

In fact, the majority to stay in the United Kingdom was close to half a million. It couldn’t have been a clearer outcome. There was none of the obfuscation for which Quebec’s referendums on independence from Canada were famous (like the 106-word question in the 1980 referendum that did not even mention the word “independence”).

The referendum in Scotland simply asked: “Should Scotland be an independent country” – and the Scots said No by a 55%-45% majority. But only thirty months later, the next generation of Scots must already have arrived.

Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond’s successor as leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of the Scottish government, announced on Monday that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence in late 2018 or early 2019. She didn’t even have the grace to say best two out of three.

It’s Sturgeon’s job to promote the idea of independence, of course, but she needed a plausible pretext to demand a re-run of Scotland’s own referendum so soon. The English nationalists who committed the entire United Kingdom to leaving the European Union in last June’s referendum gave her that pretext: 53 percent of the English voted to leave the EU, but 62 percent of Scots voted to stay.

Why such a difference? Because the “Little Englanders” who voted to leave were seduced by the neo-Elizabethan fantasy of a swash-buckling, free-trading England that would stay rich by living on its wits. (Unlike the real Elizabethan England of 400 years ago, whose major foreign source of income was piracy.)

Scotland was never a great power, and it views the European Union as an economic and political safe haven. A large majority of Scots have no desire to leave the EU – especially if they are being dragged out of it by the gravely deluded English.

So Nicola Sturgeon can reasonably say that there has been a “material change of circumstances” since the first Scottish referendum, and claim that this change justifies another one. However, her claim is seriously undermined by the fact that Scots are opposed to another referendum, even under current circumstances, by a three-to-two majority. The whole referendum process is just too painful and divisive.

Moreover, there has been another “material change of circumstances” that hurts the case for Scottish independence. Low oil prices and the gradual depletion of the North Sea oil fields have cut the Scottish government’s tax take from North Sea oil revenue from $14.2 billion in 2008-09 to only $2.2 billion in 2015 and a mere $73 million this year. The oil income that subsidised Scotland’s high social spending is finished.

Then there is the fact that the European Union is made up of sovereign states, and that such states instinctively cooperate to discourage and punish separatism in any of their members. Brussels has plainly stated that an independent Scotland would not automatically retain EU membership.

This is the “Barroso doctrine” – that if any part of an existing EU country becomes an independent state it has to apply for membership – and the European Commission has just reconfirmed that Scotland would be subject to this rule. The application process for new members normally takes many years.

So an independent Scotland could find itself outside the EU single market because of Brexit, and outside the British single market as well because of its secession from the United Kingdom. Scotland exports four times as much to the ROUK (Rest of the United Kingdom) as it does to the EU, so this could spell economic disaster.

At the same time Scotland would also find itself outside NATO, the main Western alliance. As Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary General, told Sky News: “By leaving the UK, (Scotland) would also leave Nato. Of course it is absolutely possible to apply for membership and then the allies will decide.” But that would certainly take years.

The future looks distinctly unpromising for an independent Scotland that breaks away from the United Kingdom just as the UK pulls out of Europe. (It hardly looks golden for England either.) The Scots didn’t vote yes for independence even when there was no Brexit in the offing. Why would they do it now?

One reason would simply be anger at the arrogance and stupidity of the Little Englanders who have presented them with this unpalatable choice. But there is little enthusiasm in Scotland for independence on these terms. Most Scots just wish the whole question would go away.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“In fact…independence”; and “At the same…years”)

Brexit: The Apocalyse

How’s this for apocalyptic? “As a historian I fear Brexit (a British vote to leave the European Union in the referendum on 23 June) could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety,” said Donald Tusk, the President of the European Union, in an interview published on Monday in the German newspaper Bild.

Tusk is not alone in his worries: last weekend Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, fretted aloud that the British referendum could trigger an avalanche of demands for special treatment or in/out referendums in other EU member countries.

“Other EU member states [may] say: ‘Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave,’” Wallstrom told the BBC. Like Tusk, she actually fears that the whole 60-year experiment in European unity may start to fall apart if Britain leaves.

EU politicians are not much interested in what happens to the United Kingdom after it leaves (which it may well do: an opinion poll last Friday gave “Leave” a ten-point lead). Britain was usually whiny and often downright obstructive in its dealings with the EU, and if it now chooses to commit a spectacular act of self-mutilation, the general European view will be that it deserves everything it gets.

That is likely to be quite a lot. If the UK loses duty-free access to the EU’s “single market” of 28 countries and 500 million people, it becomes far less attractive to non-European investors who want access to that market. It also loses every trade deal it has with other countries, since they were all negotiated by the EU as a whole. Britain could spend ten years trying to renegotiate them on its own, and end up with much worse terms.

The resultant collapse in national income might be avoided if Britain remained a part of the single market, which is theoretically possible. Both Norway and Switzerland belong to it without being EU members – but they have to pay in just as much as if they were members, and they have to accept the EU rules on freedom of movement, which means that any citizen of any EU member can live and work in their country.

That’s not going to go down well with the leaders of the “Leave” campaign, since their strongest selling points are stopping immigration, and “saving money” by ending payments to the EU. They simply could not survive politically if they openly abandoned those goals. Nor would EU leaders be willing to fudge a deal: in order to deter other members from leaving, it will be politically necessary for them to punish Britain economically.

You might wonder how any sane British politician, knowing this, would risk holding a referendum, let alone advocate a “Leave” vote. The answer is a foolish miscalculation (on the part of Prime Minister David Cameron), and reckless ambition (on the part of his would-be successor, Boris Johnson).

Cameron promised the referendum three years ago merely as a device for preserving the unity of the Conservative Party. It would pacify the right wing of his party, which wanted out, but he thought he would never have to hold the referendum because his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, would veto it. Unfortunately, the Conservatives won a narrow majority in last year’s election, the coalition ended, and Cameron was stuck with his promise.

So far, so stupid – and then Boris Johnson, Britain’s somewhat better-mannered answer to Donald Trump, took the leadership of the “Leave” campaign. Johnson was not even a dedicated anti-EU campaigner, but he was certainly dedicated to taking the leadership of the Conservative Party and the prime ministership away from David Cameron.

Leading the “Out” campaign to victory, forcing Cameron’s resignation and taking his place was the only way Johnson could achieve his ambition, so he took it. He has been utterly ruthless in his campaign tactics, telling lies he knows to be lies (like how much Britain pays in to the EU), and using anti-immigrant rhetoric that reeks of racism. So he may win.

But he wouldn’t enjoy being prime minister much, given what would happen to the United Kingdom if he wins. Scotland will certainly vote “Remain”, and it would probably hold a second independence referendum and leave the UK rather than be dragged out of the European Union by English votes. And the truncated Britain that Johnson led would be dealing with a world of economic woe.

But what about the EU? Would it fragment? Would that lead to the destruction of “Western political civilisation in its entirety”, as Tusk suggested? (By that he presumably meant the end of the trans-Atlantic cooperation between the United States and a more or less unified Europe that has characterised Western strategy for the past sixty years.)

Probably not. The EU is in the economic doldrums, and the prospect of several million refugees coming in has facilitated the rise of nationalist parties, some verging on neo-fascist, in a number of member countries. But the advantages of the single market would probably be enough to hold the EU together, especially if the members had the horrible example of Britain’s fate as a warning.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The resultant…economically”)

Brexit: What If?

After months in which opinion polls showed a 6-10 percent lead for the “Remain” side in the referendum campaign on continued British membership of the European Union, the numbers have suddenly shifted in favour of “Leave”. The latest Guardian/ICM polls revealed that 52 percent of those polled favour Brexit (British exit from the EU), while only 48 percent want to stay in.

These numbers may even understate the probable outcome if the referendum were held today, and not in three weeks’ time (23 June). “Out” voters are typically older, whiter and less urban than the “In” supporters – and much more likely to vote on the day.

One “Remain” campaigner even fantasised about the ideal poster to motivate young pro-EU Brits to take the trouble of actually bothering to register and then vote. It would show an election queue of elderly, well-dressed white voters, all clearly unlikely to be around in 25 years’ time, and the tag-line would say: “Don’t Let These People Decide Your Future.” Needless to say, it will not decorate any actual walls.

So what if Brexit really does win the referendum? Even if the margin of victory is very small, the decision will in practice be irrevocable. And two things will certainly follow almost instantly.

One is the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron, whose position will become impossible. It was he who promised a needless referendum three years ago, not in response to overwhelming popular demand but in a blundering attempt to placate the obsessively anti-EU right wing of his own Conservative Party. Then he led the campaign AGAINST Brexit – and lost it.

The other certainty is that Scotland will vote to remain in the EU, no matter how the rest of the United Kingdom votes, and will not let its wishes be overruled by the ROUK (as the rest of the country will doubtless come to be known). The Scottish National Party, fresh from an election victory at home, will call a second referendum on Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, and almost certainly win it.

After that, however, the glass gets darker. The new Conservative leader and prime minister would probably be Boris Johnson, Britain’s answer to Donald Trump. Perhaps no leader could negotiate a divorce settlement with the EU that protected Britain’s vital trade interests, but Johnson, at the head of a party mired in a civil war and with a working majority of only 18 seats in parliament, is least likely of all to achieve it.

Under article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, negotiations for the withdrawal of any EU member must be concluded within two years after the country in question says it intends to leave. The big issues would be continuing British duty-free access to the “single market” made up of the other 27 EU members – almost half of Britain’s exports go to EU countries – and continued free movement of labour across national borders

“It will be imperative to stop the Brexit contagion from gripping other countries,” said one EU official, so European negotiators will want to impose harsh terms on Britain in order to show other potential defectors that leaving is not cost-free. Since only 8 percent of EU exports go to Britain (and only two EU countries run a trade surplus with the UK), nobody will go out on a limb to preserve duty-free British access to the single market.

As for free movement of labour, ending it would require the expulsion of at least a million EU citizens currently working in the United Kingdom. Preserving it, on the other hand, would mean keeping the door open to uncontrolled immigration from other EU countries – but closing that door was a key promise of the Brexit campaign. This will not be a friendly divorce, and Britain’s negotiating position is not good.

Meawhile, Scotland would be having its own difficulties. A second referendum would certainly back independence from the UK, but it would not be easy for Scotland to retain (or rather, regain) its EU membership.

Legally, it would have to re-apply, and other EU members (notably Spain) that want to discourage parts of their own countries from seceding will have every reason to make things hard for the Scots. They could end up waiting outside the door for a long time.

As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Scotland would just be collateral damage, and the Rest of the UK would deserve and get very little sympathy when the divorce negotiations turn nasty. What will worry everybody else is the risk to the unity of the rest of the EU.

It is a bad time for Europe. Economic growth is low, unemployment and debt are high, and refugees are pouring in from the Middle East and Africa. Hard-right populist movements like the Front National in France and Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany, anti-immigrant and anti-EU, are growing everywhere in Europe, and are already in power in Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland.

The real fear is that the “Brexit contagion” will spread, and that other EU members will also acquire governments that just want out. That’s actually not a very high probability, but nobody wants the old pre-EU Europe back.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“One…walls”; and “Under…borders”)