The ruling class in Britain is mired in problems of its own making. Ditching its own long-embedded choices, it stumbles towards Brexit and is abandoning half a century of its preferred strategy.  Predictably, an exceptionally intractable problem has developed about the national border in Ireland. The political factions that arranged and delivered the Brexit decision blithely ignored the fact that the border would become the frontier between the Irish Republic, a member of the EU (European Union), and the post-Brexit non-EU United Kingdom.
The border in Ireland - the Brexit can of worms
For almost 100 years the Irish and British ruling classes have operated a system where a “national border” has existed separating the North East from the rest of the island. And despite recent evidence to the contrary, capitalists, are generally not fools when it comes to looking after their own interests. The political settlement that created and maintained the border was not intended to significantly disrupt trade, a crucial moment in realising capitalist profits. Reconciling that contradiction between a state border and the bosses’ need to buy and sell has been recognised by both national ruling classes. That intention has been very obvious since the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic simultaneously joined the European Economic Union (now EU) at the start of 1973.
Following the Brexit vote, until the start of 2018 Theresa May and her ministers talked abstractly about a commitment to "No hard border" in Ireland. This was accompanied by vague promises to use information technology that doesn't yet exist. As the proposal was increasingly exposed as nonsensical, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, managed to come out with "Nonsense on Stilts". Johnson dredged up his past as Mayor of London to equate the Irish border problem with the technical solution required to raise income from the London traffic congestion charge.
As the British and European ruling classes enter a more intense period of arm-wrestling in the final year before Brexit it is clear that a solution acceptable to all the factions is, at the very least, very far from being agreed. Ironically, all the players pay lip-service to "a frictionless border" but can produce nothing approaching a solution on which they could agree.
At the core of the problem is the process by which the EU "shared sovereignty" amongst its members is reflected in the trading arrangements within the EU and between that bloc and the rest of the world. All the states within the EU are included in The European Union Customs Union (EUCU). EUCU guarantees that a common tariff is applied to all goods being imported from outside the EU. The other side of the arrangement is that no tariffs are allowed on goods travelling within the EU. In line with the demands of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories, May's ministers have adopted a public position of definitely making leaving the EUCU part of Brexit. However, that position appears incompatible with the vision of a "frictionless border". At this stage the Tories seem to have boxed themselves into a corner with the only fallback position, similar to the customs arrangement between Turkey and the EU, also being ruled out.
May's position increasingly appears undeliverable, a combination of an ostrich with its head buried in the sand and a fraudulent sales organisation touting technological solutions that are yet to be produced. Early in March the pressure was building on May to escape the dilemma by agreeing a deal that would leave Northern Ireland in an ongoing agreement with the EU regarding tariffs – an ongoing Customs Union wearing a carnival mask. However, such a move could alienate the Eurosceptic Tories and the DUP – both factions would see it as a breach of their twin sacred commitments to a "hard Brexit" and the totemic aspects of the Union between Britain and Northern Ireland.
In opposition to the Tories' untenable position a broad coalition has emerged which would insist on special arrangements to allow the border to actually remain "frictionless". In Northern Ireland this echoes the position of the opposition Sinn Fein who argue for a "special status" that would allow for ongoing economic cooperation with the Republic. That position broadly converges with the combined approach of the Irish government and the EU negotiators.
At present, the Tory government is pressing on with their commitment to withdraw from the Customs Union and a refusal to consider any "special status" for Northern Ireland. In fact, they are left with their “Little Englander” project and no workable plan to avoid the nonsense of trade barriers appearing between Northern Ireland and the 26-county Republic. The apparently insoluble challenge has been given a further dimension by the Tory Government’s arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). For the DUP, their Unionist version of Theresa May’s “Brexit means Brexit” sounds much more like the “No Surrender”, so favoured by their founder, Ian Paisley.
The price that the DUP obtained from the Tories for supporting May's second government was about £1 billion. Despite already being granted the majority of their bribe, the DUP contribution to complicating the Brexit Irish conundrum has not decreased in any way. Irrespective of the vote against Brexit in Northern Ireland – so much for that “democratic choice” claptrap – the DUP has become a “pole of attraction” for all the most intransigent supporters of the Union between Britain and the six counties.
The genie having escaped from the lamp, the Unionist old guard have finally felt able to start challenging the Good Friday arrangement and the politics of allowing Sinn Fein to keep their snouts in the Stormont trough. The Brexit shenanigans have allowed them to dream again of restoring Northern Ireland to its original model as a part-province marked out by its loyalty to the British state. For those fantasists, including the shameless Labour Unionist, Kate Hoey, they have the final opportunity to imagine rolling back history beyond all talk of power sharing and those pesky Europeans and Americans. After all, they only need to take their Tardis back half a century to end up somewhere around the Lemass-O’Neill (leading politicians from the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland) talks of the 1960s. “No more (Treaty of ) Rome rule!”.
No borders – why and how
State borders are part and parcel of capitalist class society. Those who have the wealth and power need to ensure that the wage workers they exploit, as well as any capitalist competitors, understand who is in control in their own territories.
The unsolved chaos about the border in Ireland highlights, in one tight geographic area, the contradictions faced by the national ruling classes across the planet. Despite nation states remaining the bedrock political structure for each national bourgeoisie, the global economy poses questions that can only be answered by transcending national boundaries. Not only is production and distribution scattered across many nation states but the role of transnational trade in realising the bosses’ profits has grown exponentially. The European Union (EU) is a prime example of how the ruling class has attempted to square the circle between their need to have a functioning “World Economy” and their ongoing attachment to bastions of power and control embodied in nation states.
Within the EU, the vast majority of the 27 post-Brexit member states, together with 4 from the European Free Trade Area, are signatories to the Schengen agreement which resolved the need to ease trade flows by abolishing all formalities at the state borders. Elsewhere in the world, there are numerous "Free Trade Areas" which allow free flow of goods but restrict the rights of workers to move across borders. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) certainly works in favour of the US, Canadian and Mexican ruling classes but, of course, keeps the many Mexican dispossessed workers from legally moving to work in USA or Canada.
Needless to say, migration control only applies to those of us who can only survive by working for others’ profits. The leeches who suck the wealth are able to buy their way around the world. While thousands of desperate people risk, and often lose, their lives in the Southern Mediterranean it is a very different story for those who can spare a few million Euros. Both Cyprus and Malta shamelessly sell citizenship and a European Union passport to rich bourgeois individuals. No death trap boats or appalling holding camps for ruling class parasites!
We are not utopian dreamers. Gentler capitalism is not an available option. The idea of a borderless class society is an impossible fantasy. In the long run it is only the overturning of the global capitalist order – revolution by the working class – that will destroy borders and all the other detritus associated with humanity’s class based pre-history. But to make that a reality we need to get organised …
18 March 2018