Ireland is likely to be the member state most affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Parliament wants to mitigate the effects of Brexit on both parts of the island.
There are approximately 275 land border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, compared to 137 crossings on the EU’s eastern border from Finland to Greece. The United Kingdom’s vote in 2016 to leave the EU means that this 500 kilometres of border could soon become an external EU frontier. Its unique circumstances must be addressed as part of the Brexit talks.
UK and EU negotiators agreed the text of a draft withdrawal agreement and a political declaration in November 2018, but it has not yet been ratified. This includes a backstop, which is a provision in the agreement acting as a safety net to prevent a hard border being created on the island which could put the Good Friday agreement at risk. This provision would create a single EU-UK customs territory and put measures in place to ensure a level playing field between the EU and the UK. The backstop would only be activated if no other solutions is found at the end of the agreed transition period.
This backstop has proved controversial in the UK as some feared it could be used to keep the country in the EU’s customs union indefinitely. In 2019, the new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement in order to remove the backstop.
EU negotiators have been pressing the UK government for concrete plans on how they propose to create a legally operational alternative to this safety net.
Mitigating the impact on Ireland
Currently, the UK is set to leave the EU at the end of October 2019. The withdrawal of the UK from the EU without a deal would be highly damaging for both parties. Official figures show that the economic damage would affect the UK disproportionately more. On the EU side, Ireland would be significantly affected. Currently many products are imported into the Republic of Ireland from the UK and therefore many products’ prices could increase due to tariffs. Supply chains are likely to get severely disrupted. In addition, the situation could affect exports. In 2018, goods exported to the UK amounted to roughly 11.5% of total Irish goods exports. There is also a risk of tensions rising in Northern Ireland.
Ireland would be able to benefit from several EU measures to mitigate the impact of a disorderly withdrawal. Funding for bilateral peace programmes in Northern Ireland would continue until at least 2020 to help support the peace and reconciliation process started by the Good Friday agreement.
Immediately following the UK’s triggering of Article 50 in March 2017, the Parliament expressed its concern at the consequences of Brexit on Ireland: North and South. MEPs also stressed the importance of preserving the Good Friday peace agreement, which ended three decades of conflict on the island and was approved by voters across the island in 1998. Parliament reiterated its concern in a resolution adopted in September 2019.
No hard border
In resolutions MEPs stressed repeatedly that a hardening of the Irish border must be avoided. Following two decades of relative peace in Ireland, the watchtowers and army checkpoints of the past have been dismantled and tens of thousands of people now commute across the open border every day. With neither Ireland nor the UK being part of the Schengen zone, a common travel area operates between the two countries.
Patients from the Republic receive radiotherapy in Northern Ireland while sick children from Belfast travel to Dublin for heart surgery. Roughly one-third of the milk produced in Northern Ireland is processed in the Republic while 40% of chicken produced in the south is processed north of the border.
Guinness is famously brewed in Dublin but it crosses the border to be bottled and canned before returning south for export. A single electricity market operates across the entire island.
“We will never allow Ireland to suffer”
Addressing members of the Irish parliament in Dublin on 21 September 2017, the Parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said: “This border created chaos, hate and violence. So to reduce it to a line on a map was a crucial achievement.” He added: “We will never allow Ireland to suffer from the British decision to leave the EU.”
All people born in Northern Ireland are entitled to Irish, and thus EU, citizenship. In the resolution adopted on 3 October 2017, the MEPs stressed that “no obstacles or impediments” should prevent people in Northern Ireland from fully exercising their rights to EU citizenship. The Parliament also underlined that a “unique” solution will be required to prevent a hardening of the border.
The role of the European Parliament
The EU has stated it wants to see significant progress on three specific issues before it starts discussions on the future relationship: namely citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Ireland. Any withdrawal agreement at the end of the UK-EU negotiations will need the approval of the European Parliament before it can enter into force.
In a resolution adopted on 18 September 2019, MEPs reiterated that they would not vote in favour of a withdrawal agreement without a backstop. However, they said they would be open to return to the EU’s original proposal for a Northern Ireland-only backstop. They would also be open to examining other solutions if they were legally and operationally credible and in line with the EU’s guiding principles.