“Can the Irish border issue sink the Brexit negotiations?” Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator over Brexit, was asked that question by a newscaster on the French public radio broadcaster France Inter. The day the interview was broadcast, on Oct. 19, a high-level meeting of the European Council in Brussels ended with no clear progress over the Brexit deal. Now the question is will the European Union and the United Kingdom reach an agreement before the Brexit deadline of March 2019?
The answer, as far as today, is no. Theresa May, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, has been struggling since the very first moment of this negotiation to tow the extremely different voices in her Conservative Party in line. Since May’s promulgation of the Chequers deal, a soft Brexit proposal, May’s cabinet has experienced increased pressure from hardliners and the resignation of three hard Brexit champions, including Brexit Minister David Davis and Foreign Affairs Minister Boris Johnson. Today, hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party say they cannot support a deal that treats Northern Ireland differently from Great Britain, and they are not the only ones. The Northern-Irish Democratic Unionist Party, on whom May’s government rely to maintain a razor-thin majority in Parliament, has fervently pushed for a Brexit deal that includes Northern Ireland as well.
The Irish Border Question
What is the problem over the Irish border? When the United Kingdom separates from the European Union, the UK will no longer be subject to the EU’s freedom of movement rules which permit EU nationals to travel to other EU countries as easily as U.S. citizens pass from state to state. The UK must decide how strictly to begin enforcing its border in Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland, which poses unique historical, geopolitical and economic challenges.
Historically, the division between Ireland and Northern Ireland has not been peaceful. Since Ireland’s independence in 1921, tension between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists, concentrated in the four counties that constitute Northern Ireland became bloodier and bloodier. The issues between the two were largely settled in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that secured an institutional arrangement for cross-border cooperation on a variety of issues between the two governments. The European Union’s policy of free border crossing of people, goods, and services furthered the peaceful collaboration between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
For this reason, in order to maintain the status quo, the EU and UK agreed in December 2017 that in the event of a deal could not be reached before March 2019, there would be a regulatory alignment between both parts of the island — preventing the need to inspect goods travelling between the two countries. Although this agreement would maintain Irish peace, it was contested by the DUP because it set up different rules for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Prime Minister May’s Chequers Plan tries to overcome the border issue altogether by proposing a “facilitated customs arrangement” in the Chequers Plan that would eliminate the need for border checks and unify regulatory standards on agricultural goods. This arrangement would nevertheless mean that (at least parts of) the UK must remain in the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market, both of which would engender controversy among the hard Brexit faction of May’s party. May, in turn, has rejected Barnier’s proposal to conduct “technical checks and controls” on goods traveling from Northern Ireland into Ireland at a location away from the physical border.
What will happen now?
In the past few months, May has attempted different solutions to deal with the Irish border issue. On Oct. 17, May mentioned the possibility of prolonging Brexit negotiations with Brussels and leaving the UK in the EU even as late as December 2020, but this option was ruled out by her own party’s members because it would cost the UK billions of pounds without producing an enduring solution over the Irish border.
With no extension possible, cornered by her own party, May is under heavy scrutiny. At present, an agreement between the UK and EU seems unlikely, but the Prime Minister must devote more and more time to win over her own cabinet and MPs in the event she finds a suitable solution to the Irish border issue, to ensure its passage. The feeling in Brussels and other European capitals is that May will have to disappoint at least one major stakeholder in this arrangement, and that stakeholder will likely be Arlene Foster, the DUP’s leader.
The EU is adamant about the need of a backstop agreement that will work, and the most viable solution is to give Northern Ireland special status with the EU, granting free movement of people and conducting customs checks away from the border. The problem with this solution is that the DUP struggles to support this plan, meaning that there might be a vote of no-confidence for May’s government. Despite this odds, May should pursue a plan along this line, even at the risk of losing her office, because the slim majority of her government is not going to change soon. It is therefore better to risk an audacious move now than waiting for a no-deal with European Union that will hurt everyone, especially the British people.