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The Island of Ireland – Still a Sticking Point

On 16th August 2017 the UK government published a Position Paper outlining the Government’s position relating to the land border on the island of Ireland that is due to become the only land border between the UK and the EU following Brexit.

In its introduction the Department for Exiting the EU says of the paper:

“The position paper — which has been published ahead of the August negotiating round — states that the Government will protect the Common Travel Area (CTA) and associated rights for UK and Irish citizens, and put upholding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement at the heart of its Exit negotiations.

The paper also puts forward proposals on avoiding a hard border on the movement of goods — making clear the UK’s position that there should be no physical infrastructure at the border — and plans to preserve the wide range of institutional cooperation between Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain including for the energy market.”

The paper outlines four main aims:

1: upholding the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement in all its part
2: maintaining the Common Travel Area and associated right
3: avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods; and
4: aiming to preserve North-South and East-West cooperation, including on energy.

It ploughs straight in to ask the EU to continue to provide the substantial funding referring to it as ‘long-term support for peace-building.’

“The EU peace-building method in Northern Ireland has been a unique, long-term commitment of substantial resources, strategically planned and executed, based on the principles of social partnership and subsidiarity and guided every step of the way by inclusive local consultation. The EU should retain its long-term support for peace-building in Northern Ireland”.

Then proceeds to suggest the following idea to deal with the intractable problem of what will become the only land border between the EU and the UK post Brexit:

“A new customs partnership with the EU, aligning our approach to the customs border in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border”

It continues:

“The option of a new customs partnership arrangement with the EU, outlined in our customs paper, would remove the need for the UK and the EU to introduce customs processes between them, so that goods moving between the UK and the EU would be treated as they are now for customs purposes. This would enable the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland to continue to be seamless in relation to customs, and operate largely in the same way it does today.”

The paper does acknowledge that practicalities of how to implement this have not been fully worked out.

“We acknowledge this is an innovative and untested approach that would take time to develop and implement.”

The EU published its own paper Guiding Principles for the dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland first transmitted for the EU 27 on 07th September and then published on 20th September 2017.

It too emphasises the importance in maintaining the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. It also specifically endorses the continuation of the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK. However on the issue of the border it makes clear that the UK’s Position Paper is inadequate. The EU paper continues to emphasise that the proposal for a solution or even a concrete suggestion relating to the border is the duty and the responsibility of the UK.

“This paper is different from the other papers in preparation of a European Union position to be presented to the United Kingdom in the context of negotiations under Art. 50, in line with the process established related to the discussions on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The present paper does not put forward solutions for the Irish border. The onus to propose solutions which overcome the challenges created on the island of Ireland by the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and its decision to leave the customs union and the internal market remains on the United Kingdom.”

 “It is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to ensure that its approach to the challenges of the Irish border in the context of its withdrawal from the European Union takes into account and protects the very specific and interwoven political, economic, security, societal and agricultural context and frameworks on the island of Ireland. These challenges will require a unique solution which cannot serve to preconfigure solution.”

Michel Barnier made a speech explaining the reasoning behind the paper on the 07th September when the paper was transmitted to the EU 27.

The European Council and the European Parliament have recognised the unique situation and the specific circumstances on the island of Ireland.

I see this specific situation as a special responsibility.

  • First, the responsibility to preserve the peace process and the gains of the Good Friday Agreement, in all its parts.
  • Secondly, the responsibility to maintain the Common Travel Area.
  • Thirdly, the responsibility to avoid the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

Relating to the Good Friday Agreement he said:

“On the Good Friday Agreement, the UK, as co-guarantor, will also need to put solutions forward.”

In particular:

  • The interlocking political institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement will need to continue operating effectively.
  • We need to avoid the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland while respecting Ireland’s place in the Single Market.
  • North-South cooperation will need to be preserved in all policy areas.
  • Irish citizens residing in Northern Ireland must continue to enjoy their rights as EU citizens. It is the birth right of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish, or British, or both.
  • The European Union will honour its financial commitments in favour of programmes supporting the peace process such as PEACE and INTERREG. We expect the UK to do the same as part of its financial settlement.

But, ladies and gentlemen, we are not there yet.

The solution for the border issue will need to be unique. It cannot preconfigure the future relationship between the European Union and the UK. It will require both sides to be flexible and creative.

What I see in the UK’s paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland worries me.

The UK wants the EU to suspend the application of its laws, its Customs Union, and its Single Market at what will be a new external border of the EU.

And the UK wants to use Ireland as a kind of test case for the future EU-UK customs relations.

This will not happen. Creativity and flexibility cannot be at the expense of the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

This would not be fair for Ireland and it would not be fair for the European Union.

It is apparent that the EU does not think this issue has been addressed satisfactorily by the UK so far.

Brexit References

Full text of the UK Position paper

Full Text of EU Guiding Principle paper

Full Text of Speech from Michel Barnier

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