There is one big issue bogging down the Brexit negotiations. We’ve already talked about the so-called “divorce bill” and citizens’ rights in previous debates, and it looks like an understanding has been reached about those issues (though, of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed when it comes to Brexit). If anything, however, those were the easy ones. The Irish border question is proving to be a massive headache for negotiators.
After the UK, Ireland is the EU Member State standing to lose most from a botched Brexit. Almost 40% of Ireland’s exports went to the UK in 2016. Reimposing physical checks at the border would inevitably hurt trade relations, not to mention the sensitive history involved and the risk of unravelling the peace process.
The EU Parliament has proposed Northern Ireland should have an “Irish sea border” with the rest of the UK. Customs checks would be carried out at ports in the North instead of at the Irish border. This would mean Northern Ireland staying in the EU Single Market and Customs Union (or, at the very least, Northern Ireland’s regulatory regime shadowing the EU’s and possibly diverging significantly from the rest of the UK).
However, this sort of creative solution is unlikely to be politically feasible. The UK government has repeatedly ruled out any solution that might damage the “integrity” of the UK’s constitutional order. To complicate things further, the ruling Conservative party in the UK is being propped up by a deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP have made it abundantly clear that a border in the Irish sea would be the reddest of red lines for them.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Rene who describes Brexit as a “mess” and suggests that problems like the Irish border issue have no obvious solutions. Is that too pessimistic? Surely all sides can come together to find a way through? To get a reaction, we spoke to John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach). What would he say to Rene?
Well, the obvious solution would be for Britain as a whole to remain in the European Customs Union and the Single Market, both of which are consistent with its leaving the European Union. There are countries that are in the Single Market or in a customs union with the EU who are not in the European Union itself.
Next up, we had a comment from Maia proposing her own solution. She thinks Northern Ireland should basically stay in the EU. If that’s going too far, perhaps it could have special status and stay inside the EU Single Market and Customs Union? Would that be possible?
Well, it may be possible. But I think it’s more important that the UK takes the time to have the debate that they really didn’t have during the referendum about the sort of relationship they want with the rest of the European Union. The referendum debate in Britain was very simplified and talked about taking back control and things like that, but didn’t specify what options for the future relationship with the rest of Europe might be chosen, and I think the debate should be focused now within the UK itself as to what they really want in the long-run and what’s in their long-term interests.
Finally, we had a comment from Maureen arguing that the most important thing for ordinary people in Ireland and Northern Ireland was that there is no “hard border” between the North and the Republic.
The UK government has, since the very beginning of the negotiations, been promoting the idea of a so-called “frictionless” border. Is such a thing possible? Perhaps using new technology (like automatic number plate recognition) to facilitate cross-border interactions?
It is possible to have relatively little friction at the border itself, but the friction will have to take place somewhere. It will be either at the border or ten miles from the border on either side because, under the EU customs code, 2% of all cargoes must be physically examined and documents must be produced to verify compliance with Rules of Origin and EU standards. So, friction will occur and it will be very expensive and costly and time-consuming. Whether it actually occurs at the physical line on the border or somewhere else is possibly open to discussion.
Should Northern Ireland stay in the EU Single Market after Brexit? Should Northern Ireland have an “Irish sea border” with the rest of the UK? Should the UK stay in the customs union? Or could a high-tech solution be found, using drones, cameras, and licence plate recognition to create a “frictionless border”? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!