Why Can't UK Solve the Irish Border Problem in Brexit?
The European Union proposed on Wednesday that, unless other solutions are found, Northern Ireland will remain in a customs union with the European Union and, for all intents and purposes, the single market as well, when Britain leaves the bloc.
The purpose, as outlined in a draft document, is to ensure that there will be no “hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland after the British withdrawal, known as Brexit. That drew a rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May, who rejected the idea out of hand.
Here is a guide to why this issue is seemingly so intractable, and how it might be settled or otherwise dealt with.
Why Is the Border Such a Big Deal?
The 500-kilometer border between Ireland, which will remain in the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which as part of the United Kingdom will be leaving the bloc, is probably the toughest challenge in talks over Britain’s departure.
The frontier issue is so tricky because, under the Northern Irish peace process, the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland has melted away, with checkpoints dismantled to reduce sectarian tensions.
The return of a “hard” border might threaten to undermine the Good Friday agreement that has reduced sectarian conflict in the North. And that is exactly what some fear Brexit will do, unless Britain remains part of the European Union’s single market and a customs union — an option that Mrs. May ruled out at the beginning of the withdrawal process.
In December, a last-ditch agreement over the Irish border was reached between Mrs. May and the European Union. That was greeted with widespread relief, yet it did not really settle the matter, setting the stage for Wednesday’s action by the European Union.
What Exactly Did the E.U. Do on Wednesday?
Its executive, the European Commission, published a draft withdrawal agreement that includes a fallback plan for retaining the soft Irish border.
European officials say they are putting into legal language a document, agreed to by Britain in December, that laid out three options. Britain’s preferred one is for an overall Brexit trade agreement that would solve the problem, but talks on that have not even formally begun. The second was for Britain to propose “specific solutions” such as the use of technology to avoid a hard border. No detailed plans have been put forward, and many are so skeptical of this idea that critics call it the “Narnia solution.”
Hence the fallback option, now written into the draft protocol, of “maintaining full alignment with those rules of the Union’s internal market and the customs union” that support cooperation with Ireland as laid out under the 1998 Belfast, or Good Friday, agreement.
What Is Theresa May so Upset About?
Speaking in Parliament, Mrs. May described the proposals as a threat to her country’s “constitutional integrity,” while one of her former ministers, David Jones, told the BBC that the European Union was using the Brexit talks to try to “annex” Northern Ireland.
They worry that if Northern Ireland stays largely within the European Union’s customs union and single market while mainland Britain quits them, a new economic frontier will be created down the middle of the Irish Sea.
That would be a problem for any London government, because a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the United Kingdom, but it is particularly poisonous for Mrs. May. That is because her minority government depends on the support of Northern Ireland’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, for which keeping its place in the United Kingdom is an existential matter.
To make matters trickier, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, gave a speech on Monday supporting the idea of Britain’s remaining in a customs union with the European Union. That would ease the Irish border problem, and creates pressure for Mrs. May to follow suit. But to do so would invite the wrath of her party’s hard-line Brexit lawmakers, who might then challenge her leadership.
What Happens Next?
Wednesday’s text is only a draft, but European Union leaders want agreement on it before starting full-scale talks on a trade deal with Britain.
Mrs. May could still retreat, however. On Wednesday she appeared to rule out British membership in a customs union, saying it would betray Brexit voters. But she is due to make a speech on Friday in which she might soften her position. She could make more specific proposals about common economic rules between Northern Ireland and Ireland (which already exist in areas like agriculture), though this might inflame the Democratic Unionist Party.
Britain could also somehow devise those elusive plans for technological solutions for the frontier, though there is no convincing example anywhere in the world. Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, made matters worse on Tuesday by comparing the Irish border to that between two London boroughs where a congestion charging scheme operates. (Then, a leaked letter he wrote seemed to acknowledge that a hard border might arise in Northern Ireland.)
Mrs. May’s other option is to play hardball and hope that the national leaders of the European Union retreat from the position proposed on Wednesday, at least allowing this issue to be fudged a little longer.
Next stop: Brussels, where the two sides are to meet toward the end of March, by which time the date of Brexit will be little more than 12 months away.