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The future of the UK's only border with the EU in the midst of the Brexit negotiations

The Northern Irish border redefined

Since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland became one of the three key issues (the other two are financial settlement and citizens’ rights) that need to be negotiated between the EU and the UK. After Brexit, Northern Ireland will represent more than a border between two sovereign states. It will also represent the only border which the UK will have with a member state of the EU.

How important is the border?

At that frontier, the EU rules on trade standards, products and free movement of people will end. If no agreement is reached by March 2019, the future trades between the EU and the UK will be governed by WTO rules which means the imposition of tariffs on trade would increase costs for both UK importers and exporters.[1] In other words, the products that are made in the EU will be more expensive in the future. Northern Ireland is particularly exposed to any raising  of tariffs and construction of structural barriers to its trade relationship with Ireland because approximately 25% of all its exported goods go south of the border. [2]

It is estimated that more than 30,000 people cross the border every day.[3] Before the official leave in 2019, goods and people are free to move across the border, but it is possible that customs checkpoints will be set up after the withdrawal. During the early stages of the Brexit negotiations, the UK proposed to make the border as ‘seamless and frictionless as possible’ and refused to put in place any ‘physical infrastructure’, but this proposal was dismissed by both the EU and Ireland.[4] There is currently no physical infrastructure on the border but there are fears and concerns that this will have to change after Brexit. If a hard border is set up, travelling between Ireland and Northern Ireland will become troublesome. Subsequently, policing will be needed to conduct checks at the borderline, and thus require the cooperation from both countries. However, Dublin has showed its reluctance to invest in border infrastructure and therefore, the question is whether the UK will pay for the infrastructure itself.

The UK's vision of the future border

Prior to the Brexit, the UK government demonstrated its desire to control migration, so the border matches the aim of the government. The Republic of Ireland wants Northern Ireland to keep following the EU rules, so that goods can continue to move across the border without burden, which is currently only possible by being part of the single market and customs union. However, in the view of the current UK government, Brexit means leaving the single market and the custom union. The trade regulations in Ireland hence will no longer be applicable to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK after the official withdrawal in 2019 and the Irish land border will become the external border for EU’s single market and customs union. Therefore, it is unlikely that the status of the border will remain the same while Brexit is taking place.

The UK government has put forward two proposals regarding the border issue. One is essentially using ‘technology-based’ solutions to reduce the need for custom checks, such as pre-screening of goods and trusted trader schemes. The other solution intends to create a ‘customs partnership’ in order to avoid introducing a border whilst still leaving the customs union. It has been admitted by the UK that achieving these two aims at the same time would be ‘challenging’.[5] The Exiting the European Union Committee urged the government to give more details regarding these two proposals, as they were not as persuasive as they should have been.

The current progress and moving forward

After the joint report between the EU and the UK was published on 8 December 2017, the European Commission said that ‘sufficient progress’ has been made during phase 1 of the negotiations under Article 50 TEU.[6] Both parties have reached an agreement regarding the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland.[7] The UK government made a pledge to maintain the ‘regulatory alignment’ between the UK and the EU. In other words, the region of Northern Ireland will be treated the same as before while maintaining a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. There will be ‘no hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the ‘constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom’ will be maintained.[8] The agreement also stipulates ‘no new regulatory barriers’ will be set up between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The border issue, though a contentious one, may be less of an issue than initially anticipated and it seems that the current progress might ultimately result in a more workable management of the only border between the UK and the EU.

Yuxin Li

Brexit Feature Writer

Thursday 1 February, 2018


[7] Ibid

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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