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Brexit and Northern Ireland: The shape of Europe’s new border

maandag 27 februari 2017, 16:02, analyse

Als het Verenigd Koninkrijk de EU verlaat, wat gebeurt er dan met de grens tussen Ierland en Noord-Ierland? Eoghan Hughes, alumnus van Trinity College Dublin en werkzaam bij het Europese agentschap Eurojust, gaat na welke opties Ierland en het Verenigd Koninkrijk nog meer hebben om een 'harde' grens te vermijden op het eiland met haar gecompliceerde geschiedenis.

Of all the complicated consequences of Brexit that have been analyzed at length in European and British media, one issue is often brushed aside as a detail. The island of Ireland is to become home to the EU and UK’s only land border, potentially upending two economies and threatening a fragile peace between Unionist and Nationalist extremists. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have long enjoyed an open border as members of a UK-Ireland Common Trade Area, and since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 all Northern Irish citizens have been able to avail of Irish and British nationality, bringing stability to a region once afflicted by intense religious and ethnic violence.

Changed utterly

After Brexit the situation is changed utterly. Already, in snap elections being held in NI, the Irish nationalist party seeking unity with Ireland, Sinn Féin (SF) is looking to gain traditional voters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by highlighting the DUP’s support of Brexit. SF are hoping to use the possibility of a border with Ireland, NI’s largest external trading partner, to shift a political balance maintained since the 1920s. This marks just the beginning of the border’s political life, as it becomes a central issue in Brexit negotiations and changing Irish-British relations.

The media have been happy to suggest that a deal can be struck to keep the border open, although Kevin O’Rourke’s recent article in the Irish Times has acknowledged how difficult this could prove. In the case of the “hard Brexit” promised by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, the UK will be out of the EU’s customs union. To avoid tariff cheating between the EU and UK and by other trading partners seeking to exploit differential rates, both the EU and UK will have to insist on a customs check on the island.

Likewise, as long as people can travel into the UK through the North’s open door, Ireland, without needing an ID, May can’t curb EU migration into the UK, a central pledge of the Brexit campaign. This suggests that a so-called “hard border” will be the inevitable consequence of Brexit in Ireland. Nevertheless, considering the stakes, it is not impossible that May and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who have promised to keep the border invisible, might be able to find an innovative solution to the border problem.

Innovative borders

Some solutions can be dismissed quickly. For instance, a “United Ireland” approach where NI merges with Ireland, has little popular support in NI or political capital in Ireland. Similarly, while DUP head Arlene Foster has suggested a soft border based on “new technology”, this concept has remained vague, and unrealistic in light of the customs and immigration issues.

More likely is the “All Ireland” solution, suggested by the UK, where Ireland would be allowed to take over maintenance of the borders of the island of Ireland, pushing British border control back to the island of Britain but leaving NI and Ireland politically distinct. If a special customs deal could be reached so that EU goods can move freely into NI, this could be a potential compromise. Thanks to the Good Friday agreement, NI citizens would also have EU citizenship, allowing them to retain many of the privileges of EU membership.

However, this option could face significant resistance from NI’s Unionist majority, who would face border checks when entering Britain, but not gain many of the benefits of the EU in return, such as subsidies and the freedom of movement for work. Unionists could even see this as the first step towards a United Ireland, making it a politically toxic strategy and unviable solution.

Reverse Greenland

One way of getting Unionists to agree to the “All Ireland” strategy might be the so-called “reverse Greenland” proposal. Proposed by Scotland, this is the idea that individual UK regions, such as Scotland and NI, could be allowed to retain their membership of the EU even as other regions, like England and Wales leave. This model is based on the Danish territory, Greenland, which left the EU in 1985 while remaining part of Denmark.

While a promising solution for NI, it would require far more autonomy from the UK for it to be possible. As with the “All Ireland” solution, the UK border would be pushed back to Britain, granting NI, as an EU member, access to the customs union and the single market, while limiting EU immigration to Britain. For Unionists a major attraction would be access to EU investments from the Common Agricultural Policy and structural development fund, vital lines of funding for NI’s economy, while retaining all the benefits of UK membership.

Assuming the DUP, who voted for Brexit, is won over, a “reverse Greenland” for NI would face other obstacles. The main would be UK reluctance to grant Scotland a similar deal, as it might encourage an independence campaign that has picked up steam since the Brexit referendum. While the UK as a whole might not be affected by NI adopting this unique position, a border between Scotland and England would be politically unthinkable. Coupled with the difficulties in negotiating such a bespoke arrangement, the chances of this approach being implemented are slim.

Hard Brexit, Hard Border

The options outlined above constitute a wish list, not a likely reality. The real shape of the future border is dependent on more than innovative options. It depends on some of the most complex divorce proceedings ever undertaken, the disentangling of thousands of laws, economic relationships and partnerships. It depends on this not just going well, but going amicably, with the UK and EU being able to find common ground. It depends on the EU making exceptions to some of its most dogmatic rules, and the UK softening the blow of its Brexit. For now, with everything as it stands, with an end to free movement and the UK’s membership of the common market, a hard Brexit means a hard border.


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