Friday

20th Sep 2019

Ireland stuck between no-deal Brexit plans and peace deal

  • Different road signs colours are the only visible evidence that there is a border between Northern Ireland (UK0 and the Republic of Ireland (EU) (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

The possibility of a 'no deal' Brexit scenario puts uncomfortable pressure on Ireland to secure the integrity of the single market while simultaneously avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland - where the EU's newest external border will emerge once the UK leaves the bloc.

It will be tasked with keeping the 500-km-long border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open in case of a no-deal, because of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended decades of violence on the island, yet would also have to police the EU's new external border.

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Brussels and Dublin have argued that since it is Britain that wants to leave the EU, and they also have the obligation to guarantee the 1998 peace deal (which includes the open border), London bears responsibility for coming up with a solution on how to avoid a hard border.

The European Commission and Irish officials have been working together with the aim of finding the necessary arrangement for the border by 11 April - the day before the new Brexit date, if British lawmakers do not pass May's deal on Friday (29 March), an EU source said.

Nevertheless, the Irish government has been consistent that whatever happens, there will be no hardening of the Irish border.

The EU commission on the other has been communicating that checks will be unavoidable.

At the EU summit last week, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar dismissed suggestions that Ireland is under pressure and said reports that German chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for a fallback option were inaccurate.

He said that there is no "task force" being set up to deal with the border, but added that Dublin is aware of its obligations to protect the single market.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier meanwhile told MEPs on Wednesday (27 March) that there will be no hard border on the border in the island of Ireland, but that at the same time, the single market's integrity will have to be maintained, and "there will have to be checks carried out somewhere".

He also said the commission is ready to make technical and financial resources available to Ireland to "address any additional challenges".

Barnier also reminded London that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that ended decades of violence between unionist Protestants and republican Catholics on the island, which many fear could reemerge if border checks are introduced between the UK's Northern Ireland and the Republic, needs to be upheld.

"In all scenarios, the Good Friday Agreement will continue to apply," Barnier said, adding: "The United Kingdom will remain a core guarantor of that agreement and is expected to uphold it in spirit and in letter."

Just how sensitive the topic is for Ireland was laid down in plain sight in January, when an EU commission spokesman confirmed that Northern Ireland will automatically have a hard border if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

Varadkar reacted quickly - by saying Ireland will not accept a hard border after Brexit under any circumstances. The Irish PM is keen on avoiding the political blame for a re-emerging border.

Elephant in room

The UK government this month said that in a no-deal Brexit it will cut tariffs to zero on 87 percent of the goods Britain imports.

That makes customs checks an urgent issue on the EU's new external frontier, as an open border on the island of Ireland would mean that goods that have paid less tariffs to the UK than the EU requirement could still make it into the EU.

This also makes a serious derogation for Ireland from the EU on policing the border unlikely.

Derogation on standards could also become a problem over time, if Britain decides to relax some of the EU requirements.

"Let there be no doubt in this house or in Westminster that when I talk about special arrangements I mean treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, and it is the UK's proposal to do exactly that," Varadkar told the Irish parliament on Wednesday.

"Alternative arrangements" pressed by UK negotiators earlier during talks on the withdrawal agreement were perceived by the EU as insufficient to enforce EU customs and other checks on imports to the bloc.

But other EU member states and EU officials argue it is Ireland's responsibility to police the EU's external border even if it is not their fault that the new frontier is there.

There are concerns within the EU that Ireland could become a smugglers' haven if checks are not sorted out after a no-deal Brexit.

"There will have to be border checks on the island," one EU diplomat said.

Another EU diplomat said some of the checks can be done away from the border, such as animal health and paperwork, but that some of the checks will have to be done at the border.

Ireland can come under pressure to protect the EU's external frontier, and could risk being practically bumped out from parts of the EU's single market if checks will have to move further inside the EU, such as ports in France and the Netherlands.

"If you want to have a single market, you have to have checks," said a third EU diplomat, adding the Irish have been reluctant to come up with plans, because it would "cost the government".

One of the diplomats referred to the issue as one of the "elephants in the room" in Brexit talks among member states, as there has been no detailed discussion among the EU-27 on arrangements that could be put in place on the island in case of a no-deal.

Ireland argues that the UK must implement the backstop in Northern Ireland, the insurance policy in the Brexit withdrawal deal to avoid a hard border, even in the deal itself fails in the British parliament.

The issue of a hard border on the island of Ireland has hung over Brexit negotiations from the start and it could still sink the withdrawal agreement as the British parliament is opposed to the "backstop solution".

The "backstop" is a last resort option that would only kick in if a trade deal between the UK and the EU would not be reached by the end of 2020, the transition period. But all of this only happens if the withdrawal agreement is accepted by British MPs.

Hardline Brexiteers have said they fear the "backstop" could trap the UK in the EU's customs union endlessly, despite legal assurances from the EU that it would not happen.

No deal or deal, the issue of the Irish border will remain top of the agenda even when the EU and the UK start negotiations on a future trade deal.

To make things more complicated Northern Ireland has been without a government for more than two years.

The Northern Ireland executive, the devolved power-sharing government of the region established in 1999, collapsed in January 2017 after a row between the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) and Sinn Fein over an energy scheme. The wedge between them has only deepened since.

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