Arguably, the hardest of the three Brexit roadblocks to resolve is the question of Britain’s border with the EU in Ireland. After Brexit, the border will cease to be an internal EU frontier, but become one of the places where the EU shares a border with a non-EU nation; an external border.
Currently, both the UK and the Republic of Ireland are both EU states and members of the single market and customs union. There are no tariffs on (EU made) goods crossing the border in either direction and, thanks to the common travel area (rather than Schengen) people are also able to cross the border freely without the formal need for a passport. All agree that a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is unwanted, but that is not the end of the story.
A driving force of the Brexit vote was the demand that Britain should control its own borders – ironic for an island that shares only one land border with an EU state on the island of Ireland. Free movement of people was to end due to fears over immigration to the UK which required border controls, of course.
It is an almost inescapable condition of WTO trading that a hard border is required where the values of cargoes crossing the border can be declared and tariffs paid. When the UK leaves the EU, the onus would be on the Irish to verify that goods imported into the EU via its border are fully compatible with EU standards and have a specified origin. Livestock crossing into the EU must meet the phytosanitary standards in force in the EU; meat and foodstuffs must also comply with EU directives. This highlights a potential problem with a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal that covered meat and foodstuffs: US domestic practice allows poultry to be washed in bleach solution after slaughter to kill bacteria; US farmers also grow genetically modified (GM) crops; and hormones can be feed to pigs and cattle to produce extra growth. The EU bans GM food currently and will not allow the risk of hormones to enter the food chain via their use in farming. The Irish would be required to ensure that no UK cargoes breached these (and other) requirements.
If the UK were to remain in the customs union, these problems could be resolved, but that would impede the UK’s freedom to strike trade deals (for the reasons above). Failure to establish a full set of UK/EU specific trade tariffs (the no deal scenario) would almost certainly cause a hard border – the same would apply to goods entering and leaving the UK via ports and airports. The Port of Dover explains that it currently takes two minutes to clear a truck into the EU/UK. A doubling of this to just four minutes (which is unrealistically brief) would cause tailbacks of trucks stretching for 17 miles from the port.
The onus is on the UK to devise a way of resolving the issues of the border, but experts and politicians have been openly sceptical about the claims for electronic declarations and checks – particularly as these would need to be in place for April 2019.
The Irish have threatened to use their veto to prevent exit talks from moving on to trade if they do not have the reassurances they need. This is an unlikely scenario as the EU27 as a group have also stated that matters will not move on to trade whilst this issue remains open.
A possible solution that has been floated would be to grant Northern Ireland (which voted to remain in the EU) special status allowing it to remain in the customs union. However, the DUP who maintain the May government’s slim majority have said that they will bloc anything which changes the status of NI with respect to the rest of the UK and have threatened to vote against the government if any such bill goes before parliament.
The Irish also have a veto on any transitional period that the UK may wish to have with the EU. The British government has described such a period as being essential to British interests.
The issue of “sufficient progress” in the Brexit talks will be decided at the Council of Europe meeting in two weeks’ time. The question of the border could be the breaking point for these talks, precluding progress to trade issues and heaping more pressure on the fragile May government.