Paul's Column: Brexit broken by border backstop

12 March 2019

It was a moment of pure elation.  The three of us from the North East of England stood on top of the Berlin Wall next to the Brandenburg Gate and cheered along with a million others as the midnight hour struck and 1991 became 1992, the first year since 1961 without a physical divide between West and East Germany, between Western and Eastern Europe.

The Wall had been breached physically in numerous places and, as a line of political division, everywhere.  Communism in Eastern Europe was in retreat and the Soviet Union was soon to be dismantled.  It was a moment of extreme optimism. 

Walls between countries are a sign of political failure, not of success.  That the European Union is 28 countries with ‘no walls’ between us is one of the EU’s greatest successes and has opened up an extraordinary space from the arctic circle in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, from Portugal in the west to Bulgaria in the east. It allows you and I to travel freely and easily to holiday, work, study or live. 

A set of 28 countries that spent centuries fighting and killing one another in various combinations of alliances, who have now put that bloody history behind us and instead opted for peace and co-operation.  That no country which has ever joined the EU has fought another EU member state is one of the primary reasons why in 2012 the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its works on the “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe."

The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for the countries of Eastern Europe to join the EU, which they duly did in 2004.

Now, for the first time in the history of the EU, a country wants to leave and, not surprisingly, it’s all become a horrible mess.

Being an island we have become used to the fact that ‘going abroad’ means taking a boat. The arrival of commercial flights in the 1950s changed that, and since 1994 we were able to take the Channel Tunnel.  All three options have a noticeable element of transition from home to abroad, although the transition has become easier - you won’t get sea or air sick on the Eurostar.

There is however a part of the UK where this state of affairs has always been somewhat different and that’s the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  From 1922 when the Republic became an independent country until 1973 it was a standard international border.  Since 1973, when the UK and the Republic both joined the EU on the same day, it has been an internal EU border – something very different, despite The Troubles.  Now, the clock is about to be turned back and everyone both north and south of this border along with both Leavers and Remainers in the UK are becoming very exercised over this land frontier. The rest of the UK will have a sea border with the EU but this part of the UK, Northern Ireland, will have the only land border with the EU.

That the Withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU has become stuck primarily on this issue - the ‘Backstop’ - should come as no surprise because, as this land border is physically different to the one in the sea.  Instead we have 300 road crossings and 310 miles of potential foot crossings, not to mention the complaints from farmers for treading on their crops.

A border that it is currently invisible will have to be made visible.  What form will it take? A series of wooden stakes could be used to visually mark the border, but given the UK’s Brexit vote was partly driven by immigration, would the only land border between the UK and the EU have to be a fence or a wall?

Twenty-eight years after I stood twelve foot up in the air on top of the Berlin Wall and cheered its demise, am I about to see a new wall built, this time much closer to home? The EU lowered walls for the sake of a lasting peace, we should learn this lesson and not risk the peace we now have in the UK.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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