The Irish border is emerging as a surprisingly tough obstacle on Britain’s path to leaving the European Union.

Irish border,Brexit

A truck passes a sign calling for not returning to hard border crossings after Brexit, near Killeen, Northern Ireland, Britain, 21 August 2017 (EPA/Aidan Crawley)

The Irish border is emerging as a surprisingly tough obstacle on Britain’s path to leaving the European Union.

Following the narrow majority in last year’s UK referendum to take the country out of the 28-nation bloc, the government has been pushing hard for negotiations with the EU on trade agreements to replace the single market and customs union currently shared by members.

But the EU Commission has insisted that before any talks can start on future trade deals, the UK must first sort out three key issues:

  • The amount of money it will have to pay the EU for financial commitments already agreed to;
  • The status of EU citizens in the UK, and of British citizens in the EU;
  • The border between the Irish Republic, a member of the EU with no inclination to leave it, and British-ruled Northern Ireland.

The first two are relatively straightforward, with a general acceptance in London that some money will have to be handed over, and broad agreement that citizens’ rights should be protected.

The Irish border is a much tougher nut to crack.

“This plan has more holes than a colander.”

When the UK leaves the EU, that border will mark the outer frontier of the bloc, implying that a host of border controls would need to be put in place to prevent people and goods entering it from Northern Ireland unchecked.

But the thought of a return to a “hard” border between the two parts of Ireland is greeted with dismay by both sides, recalling the decades of religious and sectarian violence that finally ended with the 1998 Good Friday power-sharing agreement signed by London and Dublin. The accord was firmly rooted in their joint membership of the EU.

UK negotiators have come up with a set of proposals under which the situation on the 500-kilometer border, with 200 crossing points, would remain more or less “frictionless” as before, with a sort of “honor” system allowing the majority of goods and services to pass without security and food safety checks.

The initial response from the EU was relief that London had finally come up with some sort of plans for Brexit, after weeks when nothing seemed to be happening. This was dramatically highlighted by a newspaper photograph that went around the world showing the EU delegation behind a mound of documents and files facing an empty-handed British team.

But that relief was followed by skepticism as to how it could possibly prevent goods and people being smuggled across. Goods imported into the UK under new trade deals with countries such as the United States and China could be brought into the EU via the Irish border.

And under the present system, there would be nothing stopping economic migrants reaching an EU member state from traveling to Ireland and then the UK via Northern Ireland.

The response to the UK proposals from an EU spokesman was succinct. “Frictionless trade is not possible outside the single market and customs union.”

Even more dismissive was the home affairs spokesman for the UK opposition Liberal Democrats, who commented: “This plan has more holes than a colander .”

Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.

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WorldEuropeIrish border presents major obstacle in Brexit talks