The Irish border issue has derailed negotiations between Brussels and the UK and is undermining Theresa May’s government.
The Republic of Ireland will not authorize moving onto trade negotiations between the EU and the UK unless there are guarantees of an open border with Northern Ireland. The UK and Northern Ireland theoretically share the same ambition.
However, for Northern Irish unionists the priority is that Belfast remains economically and politically tied to the UK. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is unwilling to accept south-north “regulatory alignment” after Brexit, as this would mean the region may then find itself drifting away economically from the UK.
On Tuesday, the leader of the DUP Arlene Foster repeated that her party did not see the UK’s draft proposal to Brussels before Monday. Hence came a veto, accompanied by an implicit threat of the DUP withdrawing its support to Theresa May’s government.
However, last week Foster said the DUP was “in constant contact” with the government as it was drafting its proposal to Brussels.
Theresa May is thus under pressure from the DUP and the Labour opposition. On Tuesday, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer told the Conservatives that their agreement with the DUP was a “coalition of chaos.” Starmer also called Monday’s failure to reach an agreement “an embarrassment.”
The economy of both the Republic and Northern Ireland is very much predicated in an open border, for anything from agricultural good exports to energy security. 55% of Northern Irish exports are to the EU; 13% of the Republic’s exports go to the UK, the BBC reports.
The British government also found on Monday that London, Scotland, and Wales will be looking for a deal similar to Northern Ireland’s if the region remains part of the Single Market.
Brexiteers suggest that “regulatory alignment” could mean that the UK is in no position to exploit the opportunities arising from leaving the EU. These “opportunities” lie mainly with deregulation, reduction of taxation, and the subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Therefore, the government responds that “alignment” is only going to apply to areas envisioned by the Good Friday Agreement, such as energy, transport, and agriculture.
There is little doubt that after Brexit a border will have to be re-established in Northern Ireland. Norway is a member of the Single Market and Schengen – from which both Ireland and the UK have opted out – but still has a land border with Sweden. The notion of a “seamless” border between the UK and the EU without Single Market and Custom Union membership is considered by most EU and Irish analysts “fanciful.”