Our only special status is as a shared problem

Posted By: October 20, 2016

Newton Emerson. Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, October 20, 2016

All sorts of silly games were being played on Monday as the assembly debated an SDLP call for “EU special status for Northern Ireland”.

Scoring points against Sinn Féin seemed to be the main motivation, although somehow Sinn Féin managed to see this off while still voting for the motion.

Unionists then won by denying Northern Ireland is special, but lost by not welcoming all this nationalist recognition of Northern Ireland’s specialness.

What really made the debate absurd is London’s obvious determination to treat the UK as one for Brexit purposes, coupled with Dublin’s increasing willingness to go along with it. The only special status these sovereign governments will accord us is that of a shared problem.

However, the concept of EU special status for Northern Ireland is not entirely ridiculous. Of the EU’s 28 member states, 19 have territories that are wholly or partly exempt from EU provisions – meaning ‘special’ is, in fact, normal.

A majority of these territories are former British, French and Dutch overseas colonies. No doubt some republicans would feel Northern Ireland fits right into that category. It does not have to though – a majority of the EU states with special territories did not acquire them through classic imperialism. Their existence simply reflects untidy European history, geography, and politics, to which Brussels has shown some creative ambiguity.

Thanks to debate in Scotland there is already a widespread awareness of the quasi-colonial case of Greenland, which left the EU but remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and whose people retain EU citizenship.

Less well known but perhaps more pertinent to Northern Ireland are the Faroe Islands, another part of the Kingdom of Denmark, which never joined the EU. The Faroes are inside the Nordic Passport Union, a six-member Scandinavian common travel area, but outside Schengen, the EU common travel zone to which the other Nordic nations belong. Yet Faroese citizens are permitted to cross the Schengen frontier without passports. They also magically acquire EU citizenship just by setting foot in Denmark.

The upshot of this for Ireland is that free movement and EU citizenship are Brexit non-issues. If they can be fudged across a Schengen border for what is in effect a devolved Danish region, there can certainly be special treatment for a region within the British and Irish common travel area.

The real problem for us is the free movement of goods, services, capital, and labor – the ‘four freedoms’ of the EU single market – plus the tariffs put up around it by the EU customs union.

There are plentiful examples of countries with special status in these fields but regions are harder to find. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are outside the EU, inside the customs union and enjoy free movement of goods, which seems at first sight like a promising compromise. However, they are not technically parts of the UK and the customs union does not cover agri-food, which is critical to Northern Ireland’s cross-border and external trade.

It is generally considered impossible for an integral region of a country to have special customs and single market access because there would be nothing to stop that leaking through the rest of the country.

We have the Irish Sea, of course, but if that became a customs and market frontier, would we still be in the UK?

In an article published this week, Prof Michael Keating of the University of Edinburgh could identify only one relevant precedent in western Europe – a Spanish system that operated up to 1820, permitting Basque provinces to trade freely abroad but pay tariffs to the rest of Spain.

There was a more recent and intriguing example in Eastern Europe. Until 1972, West Germany refused to levy EEC tariffs on trade with East Germany because it considered the communist state to be part of its territory. This is strikingly similar to Ireland before the repeal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, raising the bewildering thought that Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement have sabotaged each other.

Before the agreement, the SDLP had another idea for EU special status. During the first round-table talks of the peace process in 1991, John Hume proposed that Northern Ireland be run as a joint-sovereignty EU protectorate, with a six-person executive comprising three locally elected politicians plus one nominee each from London, Dublin, and Brussels.

Sadly, that was not recalled during this week’s Stormont debate. But the way things are going, it could crop up again.