Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Border myopia

I don’t really expect ministers of the Crown to understand the entirety of their briefs; that would be too much for people who are generally little more than political figureheads.  So the fact that one former Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Patterson, managed to get his figures wrong in relation to cross-border trade is probably just the result of him being a ‘former’ minister and no longer having civil servants loyally hanging around ready to ‘clarify’ what he really meant.  The point that he was trying to make, as I understood it, was that because trade levels are so low, the existence of – or nature of – a border really isn’t that important.
Much more worrying than his lack of grasp of the figures is that a spell in the Northern Ireland office has done nothing to open his eyes to the fact that borders are about more than trade and economics.  There are few borders, anywhere in the world, which are as highly charged as that on the island of Ireland, and the fact that he still thinks it’s all about trade shows the power of a financial-based ideology to blind its holders to all other factors.
It does, though, provide a good insight into all that’s gone wrong with the Brexit process and negotiations from the outset.  Other borders within Europe may not be as sensitive as that between the Republic and the North, but the continental approach to borders and the European project has always been imbued with a significance which goes well beyond trade and economics.  The UK position, on the other hand, has always been driven by the ideologues who see humans as little more than economic animals, driven solely by pursuit of their own best financial interest, at the expense of others whenever necessary.
It is the same blindness to the non-economic factors which led the Brexiteers to tell us that German carmakers, backed up by Italian Prosecco producers, would force Merkel and the others to give us a better deal outside the EU than we get inside.  It was that attitude which led to talk of the deal being the “easiest in human history” (© Liam Fox).  And it was that attitude which led to the “they need us more than we need them” approach to the possession and consumption of cake.
But if a spell presiding over the Northern Ireland office, dealing with one of the most emotionally-charged borders in the world, can’t reduce this myopia, then what can?  After the events of this week, I suspect that the answer is ‘nothing’.  The gulf in perception of what opening borders is about remains as great – perhaps even greater – now than it was at the outset.  And one of the worst aspects of all of this is that I see little by way of a better understanding on the opposition benches.  The opposition parties seem almost as fixated by the economics as the government.

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