Northern Ireland is taking its turn in the international spotlight as the Brexit sparring session between the EU and UK looks at the fate of the six counties. Last month, “Northern Ireland and Ireland: Position Paper” was released by the UK Government, which set out its objectives on Northern Ireland for the Brexit negotiations. Protecting the Peace Process, the Common Travel Area (CAT), and avoiding a hard border were key parts of the document. The UK also set out a detailed decision for the preservation of “North-South and East-West cooperation, including for Energy.”

Now, the EU has struck back with its own paper on Northern Ireland. The document is part of the EU’s latest release of papers which set out the EU’s position at the negotiating table. Papers on data protection, intellectual property, public procurement and customs issues were also made available. Despite being far less detailed than the UK’s one, “Guiding Principles Transmitted to EU27 for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland” has received the most media coverage so far. Most of that attention is down to Michel Barnier, the French politician now serving as the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, after he used the release of the EU’s paper on Northern Ireland to attack the UK’s one.

Guiding Principles Transmitted to EU27 for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland

The short paper curtly states the EU’s position; “The present paper does not put forward solutions for the Irish border. The onus to propose solutions which overcome the challenges created on the island of Ireland by the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and its decision to leave the customs union and the internal market remains on the United Kingdom.”

The Border

The paper does note, however, that a “thorough understanding of the other issues beyond customs arrangements which are relevant to the border is also required” to advance discussions. The UK’s decision to leave the EU must take into account and protect the “very specific and interwoven political, economic, security, societal and agricultural context and frameworks on the island of Ireland.” Therefore, “these challenges will require a unique solution which cannot serve to preconfigure solutions in the context of the wider discussions on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.” The paper discusses the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process. Five points are listed. Bodies and institutions which provide a framework for the two countries to co-operate “will need to continue to operate effectively.”

The avoidance of a hard border is identified as another key objective. Due to the “unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required to avoid a hard border, including any physical border infrastructure. This must be achieved in a way which ensures that Ireland’s place within the Internal Market and Customs Union is unaffected.”

The Common Travel Area

The paper recognises the CTA pre-dated the EU. Irish and British citizens are able to “travel and reside in either jurisdiction without restriction and provides for associated rights and privileges in both jurisdictions.”  The continuance of the CTA is “fundamental to facilitating the interaction of people in Ireland and the United Kingdom,” as it “underpins the peace process and the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, in particular the citizenship and identity provisions.” The UK’s willingness to continue the CTA is acknowledged within the paper.

What About Energy?

The EU is currently taking it easy with the Northern Ireland situation by insisting that since the UK decided to leave, it’s up to them to handle it. However, both sides’ papers identify the 3 key issues and make similar points. There was no mention in the EU’s paper of the Single Energy Market (SEM), which has seen the unification of the energy market on the island, with work already underway to launch an improved SEM next May. While the EU may have side-stepped the problem here, it will be interesting to see how it ultimately chooses to respond to the issue.

Cian Carton – Editor