Why The Irish Border Is Making Brexit Difficult

Published on February 12, 2019

With Brexit, the process of the UK leaving the EU looming around the corner, many questions remain. One of the most important from a historical perspective is “what happens to Ireland?”

“Regardless of the outcome, at this point Brexit is what we can call one of the greatest exercises in the destruction of brand value” — Grit Daily Executive Editor, Jordan French.

The border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland (sometimes incorrectly called Southern Ireland) is one of the most intensely disputed issues in Brexit. With the UK leaving the Union on March 29th, there isn’t much time left to resolve this monumental issue.

As Northern Ireland part of the UK and is therefore leaving the EU, there’s a chance the EU will need to impose a border between it and its southern cousin, the Republic of Ireland.

With 110 million people and over 72 million vehicles crossing the border every year, this is bound to lead to a lot of inconveniences. As a result of the uncertainty around the exit, tensions are increasing. Thus, it is in the interests of both the EU and the UK to find a satisfactory resolution.

But what are the options?

Where’s The Need For A Border Anyway?

First, a lesson in geography. Northern Ireland, part of the UK, sits just above the independent Republic of Ireland, part of the EU, to the south.

To many citizens, the question of a border seems absurd. Why would there be a border in the first place? After all, there are many non-EU countries which allow for free travel from and to EU countries with no border stops.

The first issue is that the EU’s customs union forbids internal tariffs on goods transported throughout member countries. There is also a tariff for any goods coming from outside, meaning that the Republic of Ireland would be hurt economically for all the products imported from the North. There are also EU-specific regulations covering product design and food safety that aren’t necessarily followed by non-EU countries.

Britain is positioning itself to eventually attain an independent trade policy. This encapsulates setting its tariffs independently as well as securing deals abroad. Britain is trying to take back control over its own trade.  If they manage this coup, the EU will have to conduct checks around the Irish border to collect tariff income and meet product standards.

The Backstop Agreement

The backstop is a proposed measure to ease the tensions between the UK and EU.  The agreement outlines that the UK will remain in a customs union with the EU.  It would temporarily resolve the issue But many Irish citizens deplore it.

While the British government has signed up a proposed “backstop agreement,” not everyone is happy.

The main issue rests with the Irish party which has threatened to withdraw support for Prime Minister Theresa May.  Why? A backstop would effectively make Northern Ireland “more part” of the EU than the rest of the UK. It could leads to major issues in the inner politics of the UK, as a change in government at such a volatile time is not beneficial.

The backstop agreement is also unfavorable to those Irish who wish to unite with the Republic of Ireland. In essence, the backstop agreement only benefits Britain and the non-Irish part of the EU and, as a result is bound to face resistance. Nonetheless, the EU sticks to the position that it is the only solution until the UK comes up with a different plan.

Technological solutions have been proposed but the EU has remained skeptical until they’re proven useful in practice. The biggest issue with the backstop proposal lies in the fact it is — at best — a band-aid solution.

Northern Ireland Staying In The EU?

If “Brexiteers” really want Brexit, why not leave Northern Ireland in the EU? –British journalist Rachel Johnson.

This statement spawned a new potential solution. If Northern Ireland simply stayed in the European Union, there would be no need for a backstop or any change.

This argument seems especially appealing to most Irish people, since Ireland voted to stay in the EU on the referendum.  It appears that most Irish citizens would vastly prefer this solution over most others. It enables Ireland to both prevent border issues, as well as stay under a single customs union.

In turn, tensions have risen within the UK with Irish people calling for autonomy — or even to split from the Kingdom altogether. All things considered, this is possibly the best move for the Northern Irish people. Despite that, it might not be the best option for the economy of Northern Ireland and it’s definitely the worst outcome for the UK.

If this happens, it will decrease cohesion in the nation and might even be the final push a restless Scotland needs in order to leave as well. Because of the “domino effect,” it is in the UK’s interest to avoid this solution at all costs.

A Tech Solution

In its discussions with the EU, the United Kingdom has proposed that the border be monitored by technology. Unfortunately, the UK wasn’t able to provide precise details as to how any form of monitoring technology would operate.

This has left the EU feeling rather skeptical about the UK’s ability to put such a project in motion. A solution which some proposed is akin to that of Norway and Sweden. These countries, while not in the EU, handle border passage swiftly and cleanly — so far.

Cars go through a system which uses high-tech cameras to automatically detect license plates. This makes border passages for civilians easy. They also use a complex system of computers to enforce customs on goods before they even leave the warehouse.

While this is a solution, the border is not without its traffic and it still has a physical presence. These facts will make the Irish people unwilling to agree to such a border. In addition, the EU has already dismissed this solution. As Sabine Weyand, the EU’s chief negotiator puts it:

“We looked at every border on this Earth, every border the EU has with a third country — there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls.”

Latest Developments

On January 29th the UK parliament voted that Theresa May, the current Prime Minister, should renegotiate terms of Brexit. One of the things that needed to be re-negotiated was the backstop agreement and a simple agreement to find a different solution to the issue.

While May was seeking to find a solution to the backstop, the EU was not as inclined. They decided that the backstop will not be negotiated. For a time, the backstop will be a thing.

Leo Varadkar, the minister of defense for the Republic of Ireland told May that the backstop had to stay.

In the end, only time will tell what will come of the border issue. Or in the case of anything that touches Brexit, perhaps time will just pass, too.

Ilija Miljkovac is a former staff writer at Grit Daily. He is based in London, United Kingdom.

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