The European Union has put forward a plan to effectively split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK after Brexit.
A leaked European Commission document, which emerged yesterday, suggested Northern Ireland must effectively remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union if a hard border is to be avoided on the island.
A furious UK Brexit Secretary David Davis immediately said his country could not possibly consider a solution that would jeopardise the ‘constitutional and economic integrity of the UK’.
‘Let me be clear: this cannot amount to creating a new border within the United Kingdom,’ he said.
He was speaking following comments by EC chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who said more progress would need to be made over the next two weeks or Brexit trade negotiations would be postponed until next year.
The Taoiseach yesterday suggested the UK and Northern Ireland do not have to stay within the Single Market or Customs Union. However he then said that the North would have to abide by all their rules – even though this would in practise amount to the same thing.
‘When it comes to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, what we have all agreed is there shouldn’t be a hard border, there should be no physical infrastructure along that border and there should be no return to the borders of the past,’ he said.
‘That doesn’t mean they have to be members of it, but it would mean continuing to apply the rules of the Single Market and the Customs Union,’ he told a meeting of the British-Irish Council summit in Jersey.
However, Britain’s core aims of striking new trade deals with non-EU countries, and stopping free movement of EU citizens into Britain, are entirely incompatible with EU Single Market rules.
Last night, experts from the worlds of business, politics and EU policy warned if Britain can’t reconcile their determination to leave the Customs Union and Single Market with their wish to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, a hard border is inevitable.
Michael Lux, former head of the European Commission’s customs unit, said we are headed towards a hard border if Britain does not agree to let Northern Ireland go it alone. But he fears this is a price the UK government simplywill not be able to pay.
‘The current UK government I think will not accept this for political reasons, because it creates a border within the UK, but there is no other way to avoid a border as far as goods are involved,’ he said.
‘While it might be possible to find some way to allow people cross the border seamlessly, such a solution is simply not possible for goods… as there would be different rates of VAT on both sides of the border,’ he added.
John Whelan, former Irish Exporters CEO and trade consultant, echoed his fears, saying: ‘As we currently stand there is no question, we are headed for a hard border, which will have major implications for the agri-food sector.’
Neil McDonnell, CEO of Isme, said: ‘On one hand the British voiced their determination not to have a hard border in Northern Ireland, but by saying they’re leaving the customs union there will be a common tariff at the border of the EU, which will be the Northern Ireland border. There is no way to reconcile their desire to have no border with their desire to leave the EU.’
Fianna Fáil Brexit spokesperson Stephen Donnelly said we now face a dilemma where all choices are bad.
‘The issue (of the border) hasn’t been resolved; we want it resolved before phase two begins. It’s in Ireland’s interest to say we won’t move to phase two until it’s resolved.
‘The longer it goes unresolved, the more likely it is there would be no deal and the UK just wobbles out. That would be catastrophic for Ireland. There would be mass unemployment, planes couldn’t take off, ships couldn’t berth, tariffs like 50% on beef could be imposed overnight which would wipe out our industry… the stakes are really high.’