November 17, 2017 / 10:57 AM / a year ago

Breakingviews - Northern Ireland is Brexit’s Gordian knot

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Northern Ireland has become Brexit’s Gordian knot. Avoiding a hard border in the region is an aim of all sides in negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The least-worst fix is for Europe to treat Northern Ireland the way it does Norway. That’s only possible if pro-UK politicians in Belfast can be made to see the economic necessity. 

A police vehicle stops traffic beside a sign for customs and excise on the motorway approaching the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, near Newry, Northern Ireland July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

A hard divide between the north and south of Ireland would disrupt nearly 30,000 daily crossings and have implications for the peace that holds between the Irish nationalist and pro-British communities in the north. The definition of a hard divide is imprecise – it might include anything that involves checks on people or goods. But calls from Brussels and the Irish government for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market and customs union, which is the only way the need for such checks could be totally obviated, have been rejected by Westminster. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has threatened to hold up the next stage of trade negotiations until the problem is resolved.

Membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which Norway has, is a compromise. It would keep Northern Ireland in the single market, allowing tariff-free trade to continue with the Republic of Ireland, the destination for 31 percent of the region’s total exports. Free trade would also be maintained with Britain, the primary market for Northern Ireland businesses. The constitutional status of the province as part of the United Kingdom would not change, while European courts would have no jurisdiction over the region – a red line for Brexiteers.  

It’s not a perfect fix. EEA members are outside the EU customs union, meaning that checks would still be necessary on goods crossing the north-south border, as well as on flows between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. An electronic customs system could remove some, but not all, of the need for physical inspections. That would test Dublin’s tolerance for any kind of physical demarcation. Nor does the Norwegian option maintain the agricultural subsidies from Brussels that contribute almost nine in every 10 pounds earned by the region’s farmers.

The politics are the bigger obstacle. The Democratic Unionist Party, on which UK Prime Minister Theresa May depends for her government’s majority, will not entertain any kind of special status for Northern Ireland based on well-founded fears that Irish nationalists Sinn Fein are using Brexit as an opportunity to push for a united Ireland. And granting EEA membership to Northern Ireland poses the risk that Scotland will ask for similar status. But the bottom line is that if the DUP doesn’t budge, everyone loses. Focusing all efforts on that may be the only way to cut the knot.


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