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What Brexit Means for the United Kingdom/Ireland Border


Immigration was the centerpiece of the Brexit campaign – a key factor in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. During the lead-up to the vote, the term “immigration” was used as a shorthand reference to asylum seekers, refugees, and workers from the periphery of the EU. In reaction to the idea that floods of immigrants were changing British society for the worse, voters took the drastic step of leaving the Union altogether.

Ironically, the most significant immigration impact of the Brexit vote may be playing out much closer to home – on the border between the UK and Ireland. This boundary may not have been at the front of most voter’s minds when they debated the immigration issue. Yet through their vote to clamp down on “immigration”, Brexit voters set in motion an unintended consequence much closer to home.

The Impact of Brexit on Ireland

In a recently released white paper, the UK government reassured citizens of both countries that it would seek to retain the status quo as implementation of Brexit moves forward. That status quo is enshrined in the Common Travel Area, an arrangement dating from 1922 in which the UK and Ireland declared free movement between their two countries. When the UK and Ireland joined the EU, the CTA essentially moved with them, creating a “mini-Schengen Area”, which operated in parallel with the free movement principle enshrined in EU treaties.

While the UK government declares its commitment to protecting this arrangement, it is not entirely clear that this will possible after Brexit occurs. In fact, the impetus for creating a border may come from Ireland rather than the UK.

Brexit will turn the frontier between the UK and Ireland into an external EU border for the first time. That will oblige Ireland to enforce and patrol the border in accordance with EU treaties – something it has not had cause to do up to this point. This “hard” border will certainly apply to people, and it may apply to goods as well‒ depending on whether the UK decides to retain membership in the European Free Trade Area.

So while Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged a seamless or frictionless border, she may not have the power to deliver it. The political will to retain the CTA may be there, but Ireland’s external obligations to the EU will likely have the effect of rendering that agreement moot.

Ireland’s Options

All of this puts Ireland in the uncomfortable position of enforcing EU law while trying to retain the benefits and access it has enjoyed under the CTA. As the UK departs from the EU, the Irish government will have to ponder its next move.  There are essentially three options:

  • Negotiate a way to retain portions of the CTA while remaining in compliance with EU treaties
  • Turn towards Europe and become a member of the Schengen area
  • Pursue an independent immigration policy outside the confines of both Schengen and the CTA

Negotiating a middle path between the CTA and Ireland’s EU obligations seems like the most sensible path, and one which is currently favored by both the Irish and UK governments. Yet this course is fraught with political complications. Retaining free movement between Ireland and the UK effectively makes Ireland the soft underbelly of border enforcement for both the UK and the EU — a known weakness which migrants will certainly exploit. Restricting free movement to Irish nationals only would still necessitate a “hard” border for everyone else.

If Ireland joins Schengen, that would draw it fully into the mainstream of EU immigration policy. The advantage of this is a clear set of rules, systems, and policies—many of which are already harmonized into Irish law. The disadvantage would again be the requirement for a “hard” border, the operation if which would be subject to negotiation at the EU level rather than with local authorities.

Ireland could take its own route, retaining its opt-out from EU immigration regimes but also recognizing the de facto demise of the CTA. This would offer the most flexibility on policy but also require Ireland to negotiate its stance with both the UK and the EU – not a simple task. This may be the only way to soften the border between the UK and Ireland. But doing so will mean forging a compromise between varying political motivations on all sides while keeping Ireland’s own interests up front.

Building the Border

Regardless of the choice Ireland and the UK come to on their mutual border, a significant investment in infrastructure will be required. There is no physical border to speak of at the moment — no border posts, no inspection regimes, not even a “welcome to” sign in most places. Even a seamless border will necessitate some kind of technology to track and monitor cross-border traffic.

The extent and nature of that infrastructure will ultimately be decided by how Brexit is operationalized both by the UK and on the Irish side. In any event, it will take years to set the underlying policy framework, negotiate the operational outlines of a border regime, and procure the equipment necessary for implementation. Yet the baselines of this new border regime will be largely set in the coming months as the UK, Ireland and the EU wade into the difficult work of making Brexit a reality.

Ben Ball is the Government Market Director at Crossmatch, where he oversees market intelligence and strategic outreach to government customers around the world. A ten year veteran of the Federal government, Ben was a Foreign Service Officer and worked in the Department of Homeland Security.
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