Brexit Negotiations and the Irish Border

By Campaign Agent Christy Williams

With just 6 weeks of negotiating time left, Brexit talks continue to heat up. The clock is ticking and there are still a number of fundamental issues to be resolved. 

Last week, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, made his annual State of the Union address in which the EU’s agenda for the upcoming year is outlined. At the heart of his speech was of course Brexit, and surprisingly it wasn’t all doom and gloom from the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg. He stated that the “UK will always be a very close neighbour and partner in political, economic and security terms” and welcomed Theresa May’s proposal to develop a future partnership based on free-trade. 

Despite this, the negotiations have once again taken a turn for the worse over the last week, and the issue of the Irish border continues to prove a sticking point in the talks.

Following years of political violence between Irish nationalists and Unionists, the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement facilitated the Irish peace process. The softening of the Irish border was a key aspect of the agreement as it offered a compromise on the differing views on the legitimacy of a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. This compromise removed the physical securitised barrier that had existed during the troubles whilst maintaining the principle that a border still remained. 

A failure to reach a creative solution to the border arrangements after Brexit could risk a return to a ‘hard’ Irish border, as the UK may no longer have the same set of rules as the EU does on the products we produce. This would mean that any product crossing in or out of Northern Ireland would have to be checked at a customs border; to ensure they achieve each side’s legal standards. If a hard border scenario were to materialise it would undoubtedly provoke political tensions in Ireland and very possibly damage the peace process; an event which both sides of the Brexit negotiating table have made clear that they wish to avoid.

With that in mind, the EU, led by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, has put forward two proposals for a withdrawal deal. The first is a standard free trade agreement between the EU and England, Scotland and Wales, much like the one the EU has signed with Canada. This option would see Northern Ireland maintain the same regulatory standards on goods as the rest of the EU, with the rest of the UK free to adopt its own new standards. This would negate the need for customs checks at the Irish border and uphold the Good Friday Agreement. 

However, May has rejected the Candian-style deal on the basis that it would mean the implementation of a customs border in the Irish sea and the breaking up of the UK economically as Northern Ireland would no longer have the same regulations on goods as England, Scotland and Wales. These fears come despite Barnier’s insistence that the proposal would ‘respect the territorial integrity of the UK’ and would merely include “a set of technical checks and controls” on goods entering into the UK via the Irish sea.

The second option put forward by the EU comes in the form of a Norwegian style deal, involving continued membership of the EU Customs Union. This has again been discounted by Theresa May on the basis that it would mean a continuation of the free movement of people, ‘large financial contributions’ to the EU budget as well as alignment with the EU’s economic rules. With both suggestions appearing unworkable to the British government, the negotiations seem to rest on the UK’s own suggestions, which have come in the form of the Chequers proposal

This would see an end to freedom of movement, no more contributions to the EU budget and an exit from the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy. At the heart of the proposal is the principle of ‘frictionless trade in goods’; meaning the UK would remain in a single market with the EU but only for goods and agricultural products, unlike the current EU single market which encompasses all areas of trade. This, according to May, would solve the Irish border issue as a common rulebook in goods and agricultural products would avoid the need for checks at the Irish border on products entering and leaving the UK. This would be because all goods across the UK would be under the same standards regulations as in the EU, so there would be no need for each side to check that the other’s standard of goods aligns with their own.

Whilst this would provide a solution for the Irish border issue, it now looks increasingly unlikely that the fundamentals of the Chequers plan will be accepted by the EU. In his speech last week, Juncker didn’t back down from the Union’s key approaches. He re-affirmed that once Britain leaves, it can no longer remain part of the single market and “certainly not only in parts of it” - which is exactly what the Chequers plan proposes. Whilst both sides have committed to the avoidance of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, finding a solution which the UK and EU agree on is proving difficult. 

This became apparent at the Salzburg Summit this week, where the Chequers proposal was all but discounted by the 27 other member states, in a move that campaigners have called “the chequers obituary”. The idea of a single market in goods and agricultural products between the EU and UK has been knocked down as it threatens to undermine the current EU Single Market, something EU leaders have continually stated they will not put at risk. Theresa May has stated that no solution exists for the Irish border “which is not based on the frictionless movement of goods”. However, as the only plans which would provide this have been categorically rejected by either side, the risk of a no deal is growing larger by the day. 

Whilst there has been signs of cooperation from both sides, this is yet to materialise into a workable deal, and as Donald Tusk puts it: “the Irish question needs something more than good intentions”. In response to the EU’s rejection of her proposal, Theresa May’s speech from 10 downing street on Friday offered a steelier and less compromising tone. She stated that her proposed deal was the only ‘credible’ option, particularly when it comes to the Irish border, and that the rejection of her plans at this stage was ‘unacceptable’.

With Theresa May promising to ‘deliver on the referendum result’ as well as committing to the avoidance of a hard Irish border, a no deal situation would put her in a difficult place. Leaving without any arrangements could make a customs border in Ireland necessary; this would compromise the Good Friday Agreement as our trade laws would not match those of the EU. With very little progress being made in the negotiations so far, this may become a reality that the Prime Minister, and the people of Britain and Ireland, have to face.

Sources and Further Reading 

Image: European Council @flickr

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