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Look to China for a partial Brexit solution

By Conal Urquhart | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-12-03 14:35

On Northern Ireland issue, 'one country, two systems' could create a bridge between European Union and Britain

When Britain voted to leave the European Union in June last year, few voters or politicians could appreciate the complexity and cost of that decision.

Almost 18 months later, the nature of Britain's exit from the EU has become more complicated. The EU set out three issues on which it said there must be agreement before negotiators move on to trade and the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom.

The EU wants the UK to recognize the rights of European citizens in the UK after Brexit, to work out what it will continue to pay the EU in joint liabilities and budget commitments after Brexit, and to ensure that there is an agreeable solution to the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It appears that Britain and the EU are relatively close to an agreement on the first two issues, but the Irish question is emerging as potentially destructive for all parties unless, as some commentators are suggesting, negotiators look to China and the negotiation over handing over sovereignty of Hong Kong from Britain back to China in 1997.

Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until 1922, when 26 counties seceded, leaving the six counties of Northern Ireland still in the UK. When Ireland and the UK joined the EU in 1973, both parts of Ireland also joined the European single market and customs union. Britain's departure from the EU threatens to re-create a hard border between the two countries, which would be economically and politically damaging.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has also supported the Hong Kong option as a way of averting an economic catastrophe that would affect the whole island of Ireland. The Republic of Ireland sells products worth 13 billion ($17.5 billion; 14.8 billion euros) to the UK each year and 40 billion to the EU - 80 percent of which passes through the UK.

Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organization, says that under the "one country, two systems" scenario, the UK could grant Northern Ireland customs autonomy and the province could then apply to join the WTO and the European Customs Union without altering any constitutional arrangements.

This would mean there would be no need for a hard border between the two parts of Ireland, and British customs could check any goods destined for Britain at Northern Ireland ports.

The British government has already gone part of the way in acknowledging Northern Ireland's unique status in the Good Friday agreements in 1998, which ended almost 30 years of war.

The British government would probably be amenable to such an arrangement, but it cannot operate without the votes of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which says it is against anything that changes the status of Northern Ireland.

The DUP and the British government are in a weak position. As a member of the EU, Ireland has the support of 26 other members, the second-largest single market in the world.

Northern Ireland has long been one of the poorest parts of the UK, but a unique customs arrangement whereby it acts as a bridge between the EU and Britain could transform it. Northern Ireland could even become as prosperous as Hong Kong.

The author is a senior editor at China Daily UK. Contact the writer at conal@mail.chinadailyuk.com

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