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Irish Border Solution Could Be Parked Until End of Brexit Talks

Updated on
  • Broad agreement to be sought as detailed deal postponed
  • German officials said to question need for totally open border

The European Union and the U.K. will seek to agree on broad principles on the Irish border dilemma in coming months to prevent the search for a solution holding up the wider Brexit talks, according to four officials familiar with the matter.

The principles will go a little further than the negotiating directives published by the EU in May, and could refer to the special circumstances facing Northern Ireland as a result of the U.K.’s decision to exit the bloc, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks. German officials have questioned the need for a totally open border on the island of Ireland following Brexit, three of the people said.

Such an accord would avoid closing off options on the border issue, allowing it to be parked until later in the negotiations when the shape of a future trade deal between the two sides is clearer, the people said. That would be welcomed by Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, which is keen to turn the negotiations to trade as quickly as possible.

British Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Tuesday that a full plan for the border is unlikely “until the end of the process” of negotiating the split.

Keeping the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open following the U.K.’s departure from the EU is one of three topics, along with citizens’ rights and money owed by the U.K, that require “sufficient progress” on resolving before the EU will allow talks to move on to Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.

Customs Controls

After the U.K. leaves the union, Ireland’s 310-mile (500-kilometer) border running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south will form the EU’s land border with the U.K. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is warning that customs controls may have to be reintroduced, and French farmers are already objecting to an open border because of concern cheaper non-European imports will enter the EU via the U.K. border.

In addition, Germany is concerned that any Irish solution doesn’t threaten the integrity of the EU’s frontier, one official said. Another said Germany had questioned whether minimal border checks represented a genuine threat to Northern Ireland’s peace process, while a third said that Germany is anxious that the U.K. doesn’t use the border issue as leverage in the wider Brexit talks.

“The cautious realism of the EU on this front is notable,” Katy Hayward, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, wrote in a blog for the London School of Economics. “A ‘hard’ border is a real possibility, and a ‘frictionless’ border is almost an oxymoron.”

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert had no immediate comment on where the Irish border issue stands. It isn’t clear yet at what point in the Brexit talks the border would be discussed, Seibert told reporters in Berlin.

Shifting Focus

Irish officials have spent months looking at technological solutions to minimize disruption along the border following Brexit. However, the new Irish administration, led by Leo Varadkar, is downplaying this effort, preferring to focus on its preferred option that no border of any sort should be reintroduced, according to the people.

That in part reflects a sense in Dublin that the outcome of the U.K. election makes it less likely that Ireland’s closest neighbor will exit the customs union, which will require customs controls to be reintroduced, one of the people said.

The British have yet to advance any concrete solutions about how to deal with the issue, one person said. The broad principles that may be agreed to in the fall are likely to omit any details of how the border will work following Brexit, the people said. They will flesh out some of the directives laid out by the EU, including how the Good Friday agreement might be protected after Brexit.

Read more about the importance of the border as a Brexit issue.

U.K. First Secretary of State Damian Green batted away a question on what would happen to the border without a deal as he stood in for May at prime minister’s question time in Parliament in London on Wednesday.

“One of the key issues which we want to bring forward and have brought forward at the start of the negotiations is precisely the issue of the Irish border because it is extremely important not just for our own citizens in Northern Ireland but for the Irish Republic that we get that right,” Green told lawmakers.

Melted Away

The U.K. and Ireland joined the EU together in 1973 at a time when sectarian violence and tit-for-tat bombings were escalating in Northern Ireland. Border controls largely melted away in the 1990s as both economies were part of the single market and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement led to a cessation of hostilities between mainly Catholic republicans fighting for a united Ireland and Protestant unionists loyal to the U.K.

An estimated 30,000 people a day now cross the border. Any solution would have to allow companies and people in Northern Ireland to move freely over the Irish border into EU territory, but also without introducing new barriers to the rest of the U.K.

Frictionless Border

The Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up May’s minority government, has said it wants a frictionless border.

The Irish prime minister’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Department of Exiting the EU said the U.K. “is seeking a deep and special partnership with the European Union, one that recognizes the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

The next round of negotiations between U.K. and EU officials begins in Brussels on Monday, with the European side still seeking clarity over the British government’s plans. Barnier said last week that some of the EU’s red lines were still not fully understood in London.

The EU and U.K. should start the "political dialogue" over the border, find ways to address the common travel area and how to preserve the Good Friday Agreement, Barnier told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday.

— With assistance by Ian Wishart, Robert Hutton, and Birgit Jennen

(Adds German concerns on border question from second paragraph.)
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