Brexit has presented the EU with one of its regular big tests – in this instance one that presses on the very essence of the Union – its unity.
Much the same can be said about the UK, but while its constituent nations amount to four, the EU has twenty-seven different voices in its choir, including one for whom it is imperative that it harmonize with both sides. Indeed, is it conceivable that the whole show might depend on that one small but crucial voice that was once thought to sound from the world’s end?
Each of the 27 must agree to the final Brexit deal, not least Ireland (for it is she), and not least on the question of the ‘border’. Hard, soft, transparent, sieve-like, smart, daft, whatever form it takes, this is the lych-gate of any border. The existence of the EU Single Market and Customs Union, the UK/Ireland Common Travel Area and the UK Common Market all point to the impossibility of maintaining anything else than a status quo de facto.
Who would put trade, international relations and the peace process at risk all at once? The Irish? The British? The idea that either would is preposterous, even given the tragic absurdity of Anglo-Irish relations over the centuries. The Northern Irish as a whole want to remain fully- integrated into the United Kingdom; the Southern Irish want to remain fully integrated into the European Union; neither wants a hard border where one has hardly ever existed in the first place, and certainly not one that trammels trade and is reminiscent of the watchtowers of old.
The choice (if there really is one), is between carrying on much as before with something more or less like the Single Market & Customs Union with a formal treaty enshrining that state of affairs in law, or without.