17 August 2017

The government yesterday released its position paper on post-Brexit arrangements for the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (RoI). It is symbolic of the government’s recognition that Brexit will have a wide-ranging effect on island of Ireland, addressing issues including the movement of citizens, the Belfast Agreement, the future of the all-Ireland energy market, and controls on the movement of agri-food goods – an important sector of the Irish economy. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney particularly welcomed the UK government’s commitment to avoid any physical infrastructure between Northern Ireland and RoI – although the paper offers few new concrete proposals on how this will be achieved.

Maintaining the peace process

Recognising the EU’s demands to achieve “sufficient progress” on matters relating to Northern Ireland as part of the withdrawal agreement, the government has called for both sides to guarantee both the Belfast Agreement – an important foundation of the Irish peace process – and the Common Travel Area (CTA) – which guarantees passport-free travel between the UK and Ireland – as part of early discussions. The government has proposed formally agreeing to protect the rights of Northern Irish citizens to both UK and Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship during the withdrawal agreement. Although expected, this is a solid demonstration of the UK’s willingness to be as flexible as possible to maintain, to the greatest extent, the status quo in Northern Ireland.

It has also called for a joint agreement to continue funding for existing EU PEACE programmes, which support border communities and fosters economic and social stability in Northern Ireland and the Irish border regions. Although the government is clear that this does not hold implications for its position on the financial settlement, it provides an example of the UK’s stated willingness to pay into the EU budget for post-Brexit for schemes it continues to participate in – following Norway’s “pay to play” model, as Open Europe’s Stephen Booth has previously noted. The paper also suggests the government will work with the Northern Irish executive and the Irish government to explore continuing these schemes after the EU budget for the existing programmes expires in 2020.

Movement of people

On the CTA, the government has sought to provide assurances that new UK requirements for EU immigration will not affect border-free travel between the UK and Ireland. Some have argued that this is not workable, as it would allow EU citizens the right to enter the UK from Ireland without checks. However, given The Times today suggests the Home Office are planning visa-free entry for EU citizens’ visiting and holidaying in the UK, this will already be the case for many EU citizens travelling directly to the UK. Moreover, the fact that Ireland is not a member of Schengen means that it will continue to conduct passport checks on those entering via the Irish border. The question therefore revolves more closely around the ability of EU citizens to use the Irish border as a back door for entry to the UK labour market. But, as government rightly argues, policing long-term immigration is not achieved at the border. Instead, immigration is managed by regulating access to the UK labour market and public services – as Open Europe has discussed before. This will continue to be possible if the CTA is upheld post-Brexit.

Trade in goods

Given EU demands to postpose discussions on trade until after “sufficient progress” has been achieved on the withdrawal agreement, it is understandable that the UK paper lacks significant or concrete proposals for future border arrangements relating to the movement of goods. The paper limits itself at this point to suggestions for a joint UK-EU checklist of key principles, against which discussions on future trade agreements can be referenced.

The UK’s key principles notably include the importance of overcoming non-tariff barriers to trade, such as regulation and security checks. This is likely to pose a greater obstacle to a future UK-EU agreement than tariffs, particularly if the UK chooses to diverge from EU regulation in certain sectors to open up access to other markets – concerns that a post-Brexit trade deal with the US would open the door to the sale of chlorinated chicken in the UK best epitomises this. The government’s call for “an agreement on regulatory equivalence of agri-food, including regulatory cooperation and dispute regulation mechanism” will therefore depend on the UK’s long-term willingness to remain close to EU standards and regulation. However, the paper’s suggestion of “scope for flexibility in relation to the method of achieving this” again signals the government’s intention to be as adaptable as possible to maintain an open Irish border.

The paper is front-footed on this point, and encourages the EU to prove itself equally adaptable. The government is right to state that “unilateral flexibility is insufficient” to ensure least disruption to current border arrangements – if trade facilitation measures are only adopted by the UK, this would only ease friction for importers. A reciprocal solution will be necessary to ensure no new checks or barriers are imposed on the Irish side of the border.

Yesterday’s release was an important stepping stone, with proposals to safeguard the CTA and the Belfast Agreement sure to inform the next round of negotiations later this month. These should prove easy to secure, given the EU’s aligned interest in preserving the Irish peace process. If both are agreed in coming talks, confidence should increase that the UK and EU are moving towards “sufficient progress” on matters relating to Northern Ireland. However, little clarity on concrete border initiatives will be possible until after negotiations open on trade and the future bilateral relationship.