Before the referendum, Irish politicians and other public figures warned of the many adverse consequences of Brexit for the British-Irish relationship, political, economic and social. Chief among the concerns was the future of the Common Travel Area, which has allowed free movement between both countries and both parts of Ireland almost continuously since 1926.
During his first appearance in the House of Commons as Northern Ireland Secretary this week, James Brokenshire said the Common Travel Area would be at the top of his agenda. His junior minister, Kris Hopkins, went further, committing the British government to doing all it can to preserve it after Brexit.
“Our objective for the Common Travel Area, as we enter negotiations with the EU about our departure, is clear: to protect the arrangement for future generations of British and Irish citizens, cognisant of our shared identity and history,” he said.
Hopkins was speaking during a debate at Westminster Hall on Brexit and the future of the Border, initiated by SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell. McDonnell warned of the destabilising impact of Brexit on the Northern Ireland peace process and the potential for economic and social disruption of a reintroduction of Border controls between North and South.
“We have two or three simple options,” McDonnell said. “If we don’t have a hard Border, in customs terms and in immigration terms, then we have to have those checks and controls at Larne and at the airports and possibly even at Dublin and
and other places. Or another option might be that the barriers are created somewhere about Dover and similar points of entry.”
McDonnell argues that, if post-Brexit Britain wants to control immigration from the EU, it will have to introduce some immigration controls with Ireland, which will continue to be open to free movement from the rest of the EU. But the nature of such controls will depend on the arrangements Britain agrees with the rest of the EU.
It is unlikely, although not impossible, that Britain will introduce visas for EU citizens, a cumbersome and expensive process made more complicated by the likelihood that EU citizens now living in the EU will be allowed to remain.
Restrictions are more likely to be applied to employment and access to welfare benefits and public services, rather than attempting to stop people entering the country. If EU citizens can fly directly into Heathrow, there would be little point in going to the trouble of entering the UK via Ireland.
The Common Travel Area is protected by Protocol 20 of the EU Treaty, which says the UK and Ireland "may continue to make arrangements between themselves relating to the movement of persons between their territories ('the Common Travel Area') . . . Nothing in Articles 26 and 77 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, in any other provision of that Treaty or of the Treaty on European Union or in any measure adopted under them, shall affect any such arrangements."
The Irish Government regards the retention of that protocol as a red line in negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Officials are confident, for now, that there is no appetite among other EU members to make an issue of it.
Once Britain is outside the bloc, it will be classified as a “third country”, and Ireland’s immigration terms with it will no longer be subject to EU approval.
Even if the immigration issue is resolved, however, McDonnell noted that Britain outside the European Union will be outside the EU customs union.
“Leaving the customs union would necessitate customs checks and therefore significant restrictions or limitations on travel at the Border,” he said. “We need to look seriously at an option for Northern Ireland having a special customs status, whereby it is treated as within the customs union for the purpose of goods and services travelling solely within the island of Ireland.”
Such an arrangement is not without precedent. McDonnell cited the example of the German town of Büsingen, a tiny enclave entirely surrounded by Swiss cantons. Administratively, Büsingen is part of the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg but part of the Swiss customs territory.
Residents of Büsingen use Swiss francs as well as euro. they can use Swiss or German stamps to post letters, and their German car registration plates are treated as Swiss by the Swiss authorities.
Integration goes so far that the local football team, FC Büsingen, is the only German team to play in the Swiss football league.