At present, Britain’s scheduled withdrawal from the European Union is creating difficulties owing to the fact that if Britain is to fulfil the wishes of the public and engage in a full withdrawal from all EU institutions and trans-national mechanisms, this would ostensibly mean creating a customs barrier between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland. Because of this, the UK government seeks to “temporarily” remain in the EU customs union in order to preserve frictionless trade between the politically divided island of Ireland.
The UK government’s policy to remain in the EU customs union has angered many supporters of Brexit who realise that withdrawal from the EU customs union was a major force behind galvanising Brexit supporters who wish the UK to develop new trading agreements with non-EU states.
There is however a clear win-win solution to this deadlock. The solution involves turning Northern Ireland into a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in which there are no tariff barriers to goods coming in from anywhere in the world (with the reasonable exceptions of certain live animals and weapons). This would mean that there would be no need to check goods travelling from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, or from anywhere else.
In respect of goods from Northern Ireland travelling into the Republic of Ireland, it would be reasonable for Dublin and Brussels to agree to allow no customs checks for goods travelling in a north-to-south direction. Because Ireland has no land border with the EU27 (aka the EU minus Britain), it would be difficult to see how a Republic of Ireland trading openly with a Special Economic Zone in Northern Ireland could become a “danger” to the EU’s own external tariff barriers. As The Republic of Ireland is already outside of the Schengen Area (along with Britain), there is already a legal precedent for The Republic of Ireland to follow slightly different rules than its other EU partners.
Even if the EU would not agree to this, the creation of an SEZ that would require minor customs checks for lorries travelling from north-to-south would not have an impact on ordinary people travelling across Ireland. By only checking lorries going in a north-to-south direction, such an option would still allow ordinary people to drive their passenger vehicles across an open border. It simply would not be prudent to check passenger vehicles in the way that it would be reasonable to conduct minor inspections of lorries.
Perhaps more importantly, by turning Northern Ireland into a free trading SEZ that is open to the wider world, Northern Ireland could be transformed from one of the least affluent parts of the UK into what could ostensibly be one of the most materially prosperous. As the elevation of living standards tends to be an antidote to extremism, this could also help to eliminate what remains of the traditional sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland.
The creation of pro-trade SEZs in China helped the country to lift 700 million people out of poverty, whilst the SEZ models helped to gradually transform China’s economy as a whole. An SEZ in Northern Ireland could likewise boost the economic fortunes of the UK as a whole, whilst specially, a Northern Ireland SEZ would improve the lives of both Catholics and Protestants in the province.
One of the reasons that such a win-win solution has not been considered is because many policy makers in developed countries arrogantly assume that SEZs are only valuable to developing countries. This is far from the truth as it implies that only developing nations are in need of major economic boosts. As much of Europe is either experiencing stagnation or recession, a Northern Ireland SEZ would allow the UK’s most troubled province to become an exemplar of what could be possible in a post-Brexit world.
Lastly, in spite of how Brussels would react to a Northern Irish SEZ, for ordinary people driving across the border of a divided Ireland, nothing would change. As such, both the letter and spirit of the Irish peace process would remain intact. This is clearly the way forward for the UK as a whole, for the Republic of Ireland and even for the European Union. This solution solves multiple problems and would create virtually none.