Prime Minister’s Brexit Vision - Irish Border

22 January 2017

The Prime Minister Theresa May has set out her stall on the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. In a recent speech she outlined her vision of what she hoped to achieve for the UK after it has left the EU.

One of the most interesting things about her speech - apparently - was that she chose to wear for the occasion a flamboyant trouser suit creation by Vivienne Westwood which, the media explained, cost her £1,190.

Also interesting was her stance on the issue of European immigration. She said that Brexit would result in a situation where the Government would "get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU".

Presumably true enough, but this issue is not an entirely straightforward one. Whilst there is a very large number of EEA migrants in the UK (possibly about three million) there is also a substantial number of Britons living in Europe - perhaps as many as 1.2 million. It is a well-known fact that a lot of Britons, finally disillusioned with the British weather, have emigrated to sunnier climes such as Spain and Portugal, and of course some of the British have moved to Europe on a more temporary basis for work reasons.

If Brexit results in restrictions on European migration to the UK it is entirely imaginable that the British would face similar restrictions in Europe, and this is evidently something that the Prime Minister is closely conscious of. She said that she "wants to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can".

She has been accused of cynically using Europeans in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations but, in truth, her position seems a sensible tactical one. The outcome of the negotiations cannot be predicted but there is a lot of stake. If the negotiations fail there is at least a possibility that Britons living in hot parts of Europe might have to return to the UK and rely on global warming, but this seems to be a slow process.

And there is another interesting matter in connection with Brexit. The UK currently has no land border with any non-EU country. There is, supposedly, a land border with the Republic of Ireland, but which is of course also a member state of the EU. But when the UK leaves the EU this situation will change, and the Northern Ireland/Irish Republic border will become an EU border.

This seems difficult to envisage at the moment. The border is surely one of the softest in the Western world. It is so soft that in some cases local people do not know exactly where it is, and it is not at all difficult to cross it without the inconvenience of border checks. It is an intriguing fact that sometimes the only way to tell which side of the border you are on is to see whether speed limits are in miles per hour (British) or kilometres per hour (Irish) - which at least indicates that somebody in authority, somewhere, knows where the border is.

Legally-minded readers may be aware that the UK, Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man and Channel Islands constitute a "common travel area" which has few border controls - and which causes a rather anomalous situation when a non-EEA person who has a visa for the Irish Republic but not for the UK slips across the border from the Republic.

But would this situation be acceptable in the post-Brexit world? And, if not, what sort of remedies might be available?

It might not be deemed entirely acceptable. The Irish Republic, like the UK, is not in the Schengen area, so the border will not become a Schengen border. But, on the other hand, an EU border is not only an immigration border but is also a customs border.

However, the Prime Minister has so far indicated in a general way that the free movement principle will be maintained and that the UK will not attempt to set up rigorous controls along the border, which meanders charmingly through 310 miles of Irish countryside. The Government is apparently considering other less drastic options such as installing cameras here and there.

This may be a reflection of the fact that the relationship between the UK and Ireland is something that long predates the EU, and it seems very possible that the border will remain on the soft side.

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