Britain Gives into European Demands on Northern Irish Border

To avoid a border in Ulster, Britain promises to keep Northern Ireland in alignment with the EU.

Theresa May Jean-Claude Juncker
British prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker pose for photos in Brussels, December 4 (European Commission)

As I predicted it would, Britain has given into European demand on the Northern Irish border in order to secure an exit deal on Friday that paves the way for talks about the kingdom’s post-Brexit trade relations with the EU.

In the absence of an innovative solution, Britain is now committed to maintain “full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support north-south cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” that brought peace to Northern Ireland.

The text also specifically bars the United Kingdom from imposing “new regulatory barriers” that could put the 1998 Good Friday Agreement at risk.

Contradictory demands

The government of Ireland had threatened to veto progress in the Brexit negotiations unless the prospect of a hard border with Northern Ireland was ruled out.

The absence of a border has helped keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants in Ulster for twenty years.

British prime minister Theresa May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party made a contradictory demand: They ruled out any regulatory divergence between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Irish won the argument.

A border here or there

To avoid closing the border, Northern Ireland would either need to stay in the EU customs unions and possibly the single market or write EU regulations into its own law, like Switzerland does.

If it doesn’t, then border controls would be needed to prevent smuggling and illegal immigration.

However, if there’s no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, there would probably need to be checks between the latter and Great Britain.

Northern Ireland’s special treatment has prompted leaders in London and Scotland, where majorities voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum, to ask for special status as well.