“The cretinous stupidity of it!” snaps the tragic hero in Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March as he faces up to his likely death in a duel over his wife’s honor. He did not want the fight and no longer loves his wife anyway, but the “stupid, steely law” of honor that bound his cavalry regiment left him no escape. In frustration, he sighs: “I don’t have the strength to run away from this stupid duel. I will become a hero out of sheer idiocy.”
Here we are, then, back to the cretinous stupidity of the Brexit conundrum—a conundrum created by a law as steely as Roth’s code of honor. The law is this: Because Britain is leaving the European Union’s economic zone at the end of the year, an economic border must be erected with the EU—and borders must go somewhere. This reality cannot be escaped.
Normally the requirement would not be a problem; borders usually go where one sovereign country ends and another begins. But the land where Britain must place this border with the EU, Northern Ireland, is not normal. Because of its particular history and demography, placing physical border controls between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a separate country, could, it is claimed, upend the delicate political settlement that exists in this unique corner of the world. Whether this is true or not, the EU has, in any case, decreed that it will not sign any deal with Britain that creates a land border in Ireland. That leaves Britain with the painful option of creating a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. In other words, Britain has to either institute an internal border or try to avoid one altogether by staying tied to EU rules in perpetuity, even after it has left the bloc.