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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Brexit Heads for Showdown Over Irish Border

In the last 20 years, relations between the U.K. and Ireland have been the strongest in their long and troubled history. Now Brexit has badly damaged this vital bilateral relationship, while the challenges it raises on the island of Ireland threaten to disrupt the Brexit negotiations.


By

Simon Nixon

The most remarkable thing about Boris Johnson’s speech on Wednesday in which he supposedly set out to reassure pro-Europeans worried about Brexit was what he didn’t say.

Astonishingly, the U.K. foreign secretary had nothing to say about what is arguably Britain’s biggest foreign-policy challenge. Ireland is the only member of the European Union with which the U.K. shares a land border—one of the most unstable in Europe not so long ago. In the last 20 years, and thanks in large part to shared membership of the EU, relations between the U.K. and Ireland have been the strongest in their long and troubled history. Now Brexit has badly damaged this vital bilateral relationship, while the challenges it raises on the island of Ireland threaten to disrupt the Brexit negotiations.

Both sides are locked into positions that would appear to make a collision inevitable. Dublin’s goal is very simple: it won’t accept any deal that would lead to the restoration of physical infrastructure on the Northern Irish border.

This is partly a question of security: it believes that any infrastructure will become a target for violence. But it is also a question of international law: the U.K. and Ireland are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty that is effectively the constitution of Northern Ireland and which hinges on the frictionless movement of goods and people across the border.

Yet U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s insistence that Britain will leave the EU’s single market and customs union would—in the words of the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier—make the reintroduction of physical border checks “unavoidable.”

Some in the U.K. have accused Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of naiveté and overplaying his hand. But so far, it has to be acknowledged, his approach has delivered spectacular results.

For most of last year, the U.K. assumed that other EU member states would put pressure on Dublin to drop its demand for a frictionless border rather than put at risk an orderly Brexit deal. Yet it was London that was forced to compromise when the EU refused its request for a two-year transition deal until it had addressed Irish concerns.

Under extreme pressure, Mrs. May committed to maintain full regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unless and until new arrangements were found to avoid the need for physical infrastructure at the border.

Now Dublin is demanding the U.K. make good on these commitments by signing up to a watertight legal text setting out what full alignment means and how it should work. Dublin is in no doubt what it means: it means Northern Ireland must remain fully aligned with all EU regulations needed to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and all-island economy.

Dublin is careful not to say that this means Northern Ireland must stay in the EU customs union and single market, but Irish ministers and officials make clear that it means something very close to it.

Mrs. May’s problem is that she has made parallel commitments to her parliamentary allies in the Democratic Unionist Party that Northern Ireland would remain in full alignment with the rest of the U.K. and to the hard-line Brexiters in her own party that the U.K. will be able to diverge from EU rules.

The Irish government is well aware that Mrs. May is in an impossible position. But how far is Mr. Varadkar willing to pursue his demands? From a domestic political perspective, it is hard to see how he can back away from the position he has taken.

After all, his brinkmanship in December enjoyed broad cross-party support and his minority government has received a substantial poll boost as a result. If he was to capitulate now and agree to a deal that would lead to the return of border controls, he would be politically humiliated.

Of course, the risk for the EU is that refusing to budge on the Irish issue triggers a political crisis in the U.K., raising the prospect of the U.K. walking away from the negotiations.

There’s little doubt that a chaotic “no deal” Brexit would be a catastrophic outcome for Ireland, leading to serious disruption to east-west trade. But Irish ministers and officials seem prepared to take that risk. They note that so far the U.K. government has moved a long way under pressure and clearly believe it can move further.

Besides, they insist that they are defending Ireland’s long-term interests and that how the U.K. government chooses to resolve the contradictions in Mrs. May’s Brexit policy is an internal issue for the U.K.

The key question may be therefore how far Dublin can count on continuing EU support. So far this has remained robust and the evidence suggests it may even be hardening.

The French government is providing strong bilateral support, say Irish officials. That perhaps is not surprising. France is particularly opposed to any deal that might undermine the integrity of the EU’s single market and customs union.

French officials also privately say they are determined that the U.K. government should provide clarity on the future relationship with the EU as part of the Article 50 Withdrawal Agreement and should not be allowed to duck hard choices until after it has left the EU in March 2019. The Irish issue is one of the few opportunities to force the U.K. to provide clarity.

Anyone looking for Mr. Johnson to provide that clarity will have to wait for his next speech.

Write to Simon Nixon at simon.nixon@wsj.com

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