UK has vital Irish Border commitments even in no-deal Brexit, new EU paper says

EU Commission mapping paper shows extent of North-South links

A lorry passes a poster calling for “No Border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty Images

A lorry passes a poster calling for “No Border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul Faith/Getty Images

 

Growing fears that the British Tory leadership race may be making a no-deal Brexit inescapable as soon as October have reinforced concerns about what exactly a no-deal Brexit will mean, not least in Ireland.

The UK has obligations and commitments in Ireland, independent of the Brexit process, arising from the Belfast Agreement. Dublin insists they include the obligation to do what is necessary to avoid hard-Border infrastructure and to sustain cross-Border programmes.

A new European Commission working paper on the extent of North-South cooperation and the source of commitments to sustain it contributes considerable force to the argument that the no-deal obligations on the UK are considerable. “North-South cooperation is a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and is essential for achieving reconciliation and the normalisation of relationships on the island of Ireland,” the commission report says.

The “mapping” survey report lists, like a British paper last December, some 147 cross-Border programmes that range from animal health to hospital cooperation to the preservation of Lough Erne’s eels.

It is, as one Irish official put it, an important and vivid demonstration of the uniqueness of the Irish Border and special interconnectedness of the island, a powerful case to our European partners for the imperative of assuring no restoration of a hard border.

According to the paper, the mapping exercise, conducted jointly by the EU and UK, showed “that virtually all areas of north-south cooperation are predicated on the avoidance of a hard border, including related customs or regulatory checks and controls”.

In agriculture, for example, the commission says that cooperation “has helped deliver joint policy objectives on animal and plant health, animal welfare, and food safety. In the area of animal health, in particular, the all-Island Animal Health and Welfare Strategy facilitates cooperation across a range of areas, including veterinary medicines, tuberculosis eradication efforts, transmissible spongiform encephalopathies management, efforts to combat epizootic disease, and the exchange of data to facilitate the movement of bovine animals, all of which are underpinned by EU legislation.”

In the case of plants “the island of Ireland is treated as a single epidemiological unit, with specific issues arising in terms of plant passporting, protected zones, as well as seed potatoes and wood packaging material”.

“Strong North-South cooperation has contributed to ensuring that the island of Ireland is free from certain plant pests/diseases which exist elsewhere in Europe, including Great Britain,” it adds.

The paper repeatedly emphasises the link between the success of such programmes and the need to avoid a hard border, not least in regard to agricultural/food product checks which would be hugely disruptive. In the wake of BSE, the EU instituted rigorous border controls on its external borders on the passage of food and agricultural goods which would need to be imposed by the Irish Government in a no-deal situation unless the UK agreed to maintain, at least in Northern Ireland, an alignment of regulatory standards and procedures equivalent to the EU’s.

“The mapping exercise demonstrated the link between environmental issues and commitments to avoid a hard border,” the paper says. “These include questions on issues such as common labelling provisions, hazardous chemicals, persistent organic pollutants, mercury, waste shipment, packaging and packaging waste, end-of-life vehicles and ship recycling, as well as a cluster of biodiversity issues.”

Emergency health cooperation could similarly be jeopardised by queues on the Border, the report says.

The commission’s mapping paper provides a powerful case that the maintenance of the infrastructure-free border is a necessary corollary of the obligations assumed by the UK under the Belfast Agreement. It is not just necessary to ensure frictionless trade and economic activity on the island, but to sustain an equally important element of the accord – all-Ireland cooperation.

The argument that it is necessary to avoid a hard border has been broadly accepted by the UK, although it strenuously refuses to acknowledge the backstop as the inevitable and only means.

The commission has insisted that while it remains open to discussing elements of the Brexit deal – the political declaration – with the UK, it will not discuss no-deal scenario arrangements until after Brexit. Each side has set out in unilateral declarations some of the temporary emergency measures that will be necessary to avoid a cliff-edge departure.

On the island of Ireland that leaves considerable uncertainty, however, and arguably there may need for bilateral discussions with the UK to clarify what it accepts to be its continuing obligations under the Belfast Agreement.

Strand two of the agreement provides for the establishment of the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which brings together the Government and the Northern Executive on matters of mutual interest. These include agriculture, environment, transport, health, tourism, and education, as well as inland waterways; food safety; trade and business development; special EU programmes management; language; and aquaculture and marine matters

London is vaguer about its obligations. A spokesman for the UK said on Wednesday night that the “UK is committed to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all scenarios” . Whether that should be interpreted as broadly as Dublin believes is unclear.

Article 13 of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement protocol deals specifically with North-South cooperation. It recognises the link between avoiding a hard border and such cooperation, and stipulates that “this Protocol shall be implemented and applied so as to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation”.

However, prior to the drafting of the protocol the EU and UK noted in their joint report in December 2017, that “the United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation”.

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