Future of the Border: good intentions not enough
Nobody has defined what a hard Border would amount to or what would be an acceptable outcome in Brexit talks
The European Commission document on Brexit and Ireland needs first to be seen in a political context. It is clear that there is still uncertainty and division in the British government about its approach to the Brexit negotiations. In this context, Brussels was quick to put responsibility back on London to sort out the issue of the future of the Irish Border, with chief negotiatior Michel Barnier making clear in passing that the recently-published British proposals were “worrying” and would not fly. If this is a factor in helping the case in the UK for a softer version of Brexit, then this will be welcomed by both London and Brussels.
For the Irish Government, it is welcome that the Commission has again underlined its desire to avoid a hard Border and to protect what was achieved under the Belfast Agreement. However, care is needed too, as nobody has defined what a hard Border would amount to, or what would be an acceptable outcome in the talks.
Meanwhile the Commission has made clear that any solution to the Border issue must not undermine the single market and also is not a template for wider trade arrangements with Britain after Brexit. All this will take time to play out. But there are potential dangers for Ireland. At some stage, the Government may be pushed to consider the reimposition of some kind of “economic” Border, albeit with efforts on all sides to limit the damage. Or a collapse in the talks could quickly make the reimposition of the Border inevitable. Above all, the Government will want to keep both sides at the table and push them to agree a lengthy transition period after Britain leaves the EU, ideally involving the continuation of the status quo.
Some progress has been made on specific Irish issues identified as among the first to be dealt with in the talks. The common rights to move freely and work between Ireland and the UK look set to be maintained. And there is a recognition on all sides that specific agreements flowing from the Belfast Agreement need to be safeguarded. Among these are the rights of citizens in the North to hold an Irish passport, if they so choose, as well as a range of North-South institutions and cooperation. The restoration of the Executive and Assembly in the North would, of course, provide the North with its own political voice as the talks proceed. However, while free movement of people across the Border may be safeguarded after Brexit,it is not clear how the same can be guaranteed for goods. If Britain leaves the customs union, as it has said it will, there is no obvious way to avoid goods checks at the Border, bar doing so as they enter and leave the North from Britain.
This would be opposed by unionists and by businesses in the North. Beyond that, like so much in the Brexit talks, negotiators will be looking for ways to minimise the damage.