Europe News

Explainer: Why Ireland's border has snarled efforts to reach Brexit deal

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The 500-km (300-mile) land border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland has become the sticking point in efforts to agree on the terms of an orderly British exit from the European Union.

Today it is essentially an open border. There is no frontier infrastructure and there are no checks at roughly 270 crossing points used by tens of thousands of vehicles every day.

This is because Ireland and Britain are both members of the EU and fall under the same ‘single market’ customs and regulatory arrangements.

But when Britain leaves, it will become the only land frontier between the EU and Britain, and so logically a “hard border” would be needed to ensure that goods entering Ireland from Britain comply with EU standards and do not threaten the bloc’s single market through price dumping or unfair competition.

If it failed to check goods coming in from Britain, Ireland itself could find the EU raising questions on whether Irish exports to the rest of the Union should remain free of all checks at their ports.


To get around this, a so-called “backstop” became the keystone of a Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck with the EU last November.

Under the backstop mechanism, effectively an insurance policy to keep the border open, Britain would have remained in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” alternative arrangements were found to avoid a hard border.

Ireland says an invisible border is a key national interest as any checks or infrastructure on the frontier could undermine Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement.

More than 3,600 people died in the three-decade conflict between unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British and Irish nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland ruled from Dublin. The open border has helped defuse anger among Irish nationalists about British rule.

However, many British lawmakers oppose the prospect of being bound to EU rules and customs duties that would prevent Britain doing its own trade deals and leave it overseen by EU judges.

Boris Johnson, who became British prime minister two months ago, has insisted that to reach a new withdrawal agreement, the backstop would have to be struck out. He has vowed to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal.


Johnson wants “alternative arrangements” to be put in place and has urged the other 27 EU member states to be flexible and creative in negotiations to clinch a deal at a Brussels summit on Oct. 17-18.

The EU’s executive, the European Commission, insists that any new arrangement must deliver on all the core objectives of the backstop. These are: to maintain a fully open border, protect the EU single market and maintain the north-south cooperation made possible by the Good Friday Agreement.

There was talk last month that the Johnson government was considering an initial EU proposal that the backstop would apply only to Northern Ireland, effectively drawing a border in the Irish Sea between the island of Ireland and the rest of Britain.

However, this option appears to have been abandoned by Johnson, who no longer has a parliamentary majority and may need the support of lawmakers from the DUP, a Northern Ireland unionist party favoring British identity.

Britain has submitted several technical papers to the EU with proposals on customs arrangements after Brexit.

However, the EU says London’s ideas so far - on food and animal checks, customs and regulatory controls, checks on manufactured goods and market surveillance, among others - fall short and are not acceptable as alternatives.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said last week that Britain had not presented any “legal and operational” proposals that could break the impasse, and many in Brussels doubt he is genuinely seeking a solution.

Johnson said on Tuesday that he would submit “a very good offer...very soon”.

He denied a report on Monday by Irish broadcaster RTE that there would have to be border posts 5-10 miles (8-16 km) back from the border, an idea Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney quickly called a “non-starter”.

However, Johnson said there would have to be some checks on the island of Ireland.

“That’s just the reality,” he said. “Because in the end, a sovereign, united country must have a single customs territory.”

Editing by Angus MacSwan