Written by: Ryan Bergal
Since Brexit negotiations opened between the United Kingdom and the European Union in June of 2017, the discussion on what to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been, for all intents and purposes, ambiguous. There has been extensive commentary on how the UK will be able to maintain their “soft border” with the Republic of Ireland once the transition period of Brexit is over and Britain is no longer part of the EU. A formal agreement regarding Britain’s only land border may not be established for months, but recent talks have at least facilitated dialogue on the controversial issue. Northern Ireland’s future relationship with its border to the South is undeniably worthy of explanation, as it will undoubtedly impact the entire island of Ireland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom.
At the end of the first round of negotiations in December, three possible scenarios were outlined for the future of the Irish border: a decision on the border in the context of an overall free trade deal between the UK and the EU, a special agreement between the UK and Ireland, or a free Irish border under the condition that Britain adheres to specific rules of the European Single Market and Customs Union.
Considering Britain’s insistence on leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, the first option of negotiations is perceived by the EU to be an increasingly infeasible one. A hard Brexit would limit the UK from having the same free trade relationship with the European Union that countries like Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein do. This is why, in the latest round of negotiations, European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier noted that Irish border checks would be “unavoidable” once Britain’s transition period out of the European Union ends.
The viability of the second option for the Irish Border depends primarily on political arrangements or implementations of technology to eliminate the need for border checks. While many Brexit supporters have looked favorably on use of technology at the Irish border, the UK has not yet identified any specific framework for the implementation of this option at past Brexit talks. Future negotiations between Britain and the European Union may reveal the true likelihood of this strategy.
With regards to the third option, the UK and the EU have not exactly been on the same page up to this point on which guidelines of the Single Market and Customs Union would be need to be followed for a soft border to remain in existence after Great Britain is no longer an EU member state. The UK officials believe that minimum alignment with the Customs Union and Single Market will be suffice for a soft border. The Irish government, however, argues the UK’s alignment should be more substantial. Once again, future talks will provide a better sense of what the third option for the Irish border might look like in practice as well as just how integrated Britain will be with Ireland – and the rest of the Europe – after it formally leaves the EU.
Chief Negotiator Barnier has cleared up some of the discrepancies between the three solutions, noting that the third option of regulatory alignment needs to be written into the framework of Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement to guarantee a soft Irish border while the specifics of the first and second options, on the other hand, could only be put into effect after the Withdrawal Agreement. This effectively means that Britain’s default option will be to align with regulations from Brussels regarding the Single Market and Customs Union. Barnier has acknowledged the foreseeable difficulty of negotiating a default alignment by the UK, especially considering the nation’s persistence on leaving the Single Market. Although an agreement on the border likely will not be reached for quite some time, the Guardian has reported that EU and UK officials are drafting a plan that would put these challenging circumstances into effect. As a result, the latest edition of Brexit talks and the succeeding remarks by Barnier have stirred up controversy within the United Kingdom.
The Brexit spokesperson for the Social Democratic and Liberal Party (a Northern-Irish party that favors reunification of Ireland) Claire Hanna, has been supportive of Barnier’s commentary on the state of Brexit and border negotiations, viewing his statements as a defense of “Northern Ireland’s economic, social, and political interests.” She also has seen Barnier’s remarks as a warning to Theresa May to either make active changes in the scope of the Brexit talks or risk a hard border going into effect. English Conservatives such as MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, meanwhile, have accused Barnier and the EU for being too harsh on talks thus far addressing the Irish border. The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has also expressed concerns about the possibility that Northern Ireland will remain in the Single Market and Customs Union and the rest of the United Kingdom will not. She tweeted that this possibility would put Scotland in a “massive relative disadvantage when it comes to attracting jobs and investment.”
Even though progress has been made on working towards an agreement between the UK and the EU as to how Britain’s border with Ireland will be maintained after Brexit, the future of these talks is very important. The border agreement will not only have an impact on the overall relationship between Britain and the European Union, but will play a pivotal role in domestic British politics and the state of Northern Ireland’s society and economy. If Northern Ireland is more integrated with Ireland and the EU than the rest of the UK, Irish nationalism and the push for unification is certain to surge, likely triggering backlash from representatives of Scotland.
Northern Ireland already has a special relationship with Ireland, due in part to the protocol established by the Good Friday Agreement but also due to the nature of the people of Northern Ireland themselves. According to the 2011 Census, 38% of the people in Northern Ireland regarded themselves as British, 25% regarded themselves as Irish, and 20% considered themselves Northern Irish. Furthermore, in Northern Irish towns close to the border, like Derry and Newry, with respective populations of approximately 85,000 and 27,000, the amount of people identifying as British are much smaller; only 19.8% of Derry identified as British, and only 16.9% of Newry did.
While there are many issues being tackled in Brexit negotiations, and many regulations will have to be enacted before Britain formally leaves the European Union, it’s hard to imagine an issue that has as much of an impact on British citizens as addressing the nature of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.