London said earlier this week that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland should stay open after Brexit without “physical border infrastructure and border posts”. About 30,000 people cross the 500-km border every day and solving the future of post-Brexit border crossing is one of the most challenging aspects of the divorce negotiations. Crossing the border is currently possible without checks or customs and negotiators fear that tightening controls could trigger regional tensions.
The issue of how Northern Ireland and the Republic of Northern Ireland will be divided is particularly sensitive given the historic context of violence. Prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, about 3,600 people had died during so-called “The Troubles” – an ethno-nationalist conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland – whether it should be part of Britain or Ireland. “Both sides need to show flexibility and imagination when it comes to the border issue in Northern Ireland,” a British government source said.
London put forward two options for future customs arrangements with Brussels – the first one would involve no customs border at all and the second one counts with ‘highly-streamlined’ customs checks. The EU leaders have not really welcomed the idea with one official describing it as “fantasy”. To that end, a British source stressed that “we have some very clear principles. Top of our list is to agree upfront no physical border infrastructure — that would mean a return to the border posts of the past and is completely unacceptable to the UK.” The EU has repeatedly said that the UK cannot expect to keep the benefits of the bloc’s single market after Brexit. According to Michel Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for Brexit, “frictionless trade” with the EU was not possible.