Brexit and the question of Northern Ireland

Article written by Mark Abdilla – Executive, MEUSAC
Published on The Malta Independent – 11.02.19

The border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has proven to be one of the biggest issues dominating Brexit proceedings. While it has been confirmed again by the House of Commons that the United Kingdom would be withdrawing from the European Union on March 29, it is very uncertain whether the UK will leave with a deal in place, or whether it would be a more chaotic situation without a set deal to map out the way forward. This could heavily hinge on whether a solution to the question of N. Ireland is found.

Both sides are aware that a hard border in Ireland is out of the question. It is not simply an issue of avoiding border checks, but also one that dates back to the Good Friday Agreement. This is the agreement which ended the conflict in Ireland, and as part of the peace process, established the need for an open Irish border to foster cooperation and serenity between both sides. A hard border would go against this ideal, and would certainly bring back memories of the 30 years of conflict suffered by the Irish people.

Thus, when both sides started negotiations, they agreed on the need of some form of backstop for the border. The Irish backstop is essentially a guarantee that the Irish border would remain open to trade, but while there is agreement on the principle of this idea, differences crop up when one looks at the methods in which the backstop can be implemented.

The EU’s original proposition would see a backstop keeping N. Ireland in the EU’s Customs Union, along with a large part of the Single Market, and the EU’s VAT system. This brought about an issue for the UK, as it was against the idea that N. Ireland would fall under a customs and regulatory system separate to that of the rest of the country. British Prime Minister Theresa May also argued that such a backstop would threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK.

The UK instead proposed that the backstop would see the whole of the UK aligned with the EU Customs Union for a limited time after 2020. The EU rejected this as it would still mean that N. Ireland would not be aligned with Single Market regulations, which is considered necessary for an effective open border.

Ultimately, an agreement was reached between both sides. It would see N. Ireland remaining aligned with some rules governing the Single Market, and a temporary customs territory where the whole of the UK would remain in the EU Customs Union. This would come into force if an alternative deal is not reached by the end of the 2020 transition period.

The agreement did not lead to resolution however, as British MPs rejected the Withdrawal Agreement in a vote in the House of Commons. The problem of constitutional integrity is still a present one, with many MPs rejecting the idea that Northern Ireland be treated differently to the rest of the UK. Additionally, some have argued that the backstop could force the UK to continue following EU rules if a solution is not found. It could also stop the UK striking out its own trade deals with the rest of the world.

Prime Minister Theresa May is now seeking alternative arrangements on the backstop from the EU and Member States. The results of these discussions could very well determine whether the UK will be leaving the EU without a deal. In the event of a no-deal scenario, there would be no transition period after March 29, and EU laws would immediately stop applying to the UK. There is also the possibility that the UK does not withdraw from the EU on March 29, and an extension is put into place to allow more time for a new arrangement to be reached.

Nevertheless, both sides have maintained their position against the advent of a hard border in Ireland, even in the case of a no-deal scenario, however the status of the border would be uncertain in such a scenario. Maintaining an open border without any sort of trade agreement could result in complaints to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by other countries, since it could be viewed as a sign of favouritism.

A week is a long time in politics, and there is always the possibility that, by March 29, new arrangements are made to allow the Withdrawal Agreement to pass through the House of Commons. The next couple of weeks shall be crucial to the Brexit process, and the status of not just the Irish border, but of the UK-EU relationship going forward could be determined.

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