In an interview with BBC Radio 4‘s Today programme, Boris Johnson got into a pickle. He revealed he doesn’t know how UK borders work. That’s quite a problem, considering he is foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.
Borders? What borders?
The future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a major question hanging over Brexit. The Republic of Ireland is an EU member, and Northern Ireland must leave with the rest of the UK. This means that, come Brexit, the border between the two will become a land border between the EU and the UK. And as there is currently no border security between the two, this raises a lot of questions about post-Brexit border arrangements:
- Will there be a hard border?
- How will customs, excise and commercial regulatory standards be enforced?
- How will either side perform necessary immigration/passport checks?
- What impact will these changes have on tourism and trade?
- What impact will this have on the Good Friday Agreement and tensions in Northern Ireland?
The EU says Northern Ireland should remain in the Customs Union (whatever the rest of the UK does) in order to resolve these issues. But the UK government is currently on course for a Hard Brexit, leaving the Customs Union altogether. Asked how he would resolve the issues in an interview with the Today programme this morning, Boris Johnson had no answers. Instead, he dismissed the complications, claiming:
There’s no border between Camden and Westminster. But when I was mayor of London, we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.
"There's no border between Camden and Westminster."
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— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) February 27, 2018
Countries not boroughs
Johnson overlooks the considerable differences between moving people and goods between two boroughs of London, and two countries – one of which is a member of the EU and one of which is not. His comments triggered backlash from both sides of the Irish border. The leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) Colum Eastwood invited the foreign secretary to visit the border and learn a lesson. Eastwood told the Belfast Telegraph:
In an effort to educate Mr Johnson, the SDLP has issued a memo to the Foreign Office detailing the difficulties with a hard border and the realities faced by people, businesses and communities here.
It’s easy to characterise Boris Johnson as the cabinet clown but he carries an immense responsibility and has significant influence in the Brexit negotiations. Trivialising the very serious concerns relating to Ireland displays a dangerous ignorance that must be challenged.
You would think a basic grasp of how UK borders work would be an essential qualification for a foreign secretary. Not in this Tory government, apparently.
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