The European Union has published its fallback plan to effectively keep the north of Ireland in the single market and customs union after Brexit, in a 120-page draft withdrawal agreement.
The Six Counties would be considered part of the EU’s customs territory after Brexit, with checks required on goods coming in from Britain, under the text produced by the European Commission.
Other trade legislation will also apply to ensure the North stays aligned with the 26 Counties and the rest of the EU.
“A common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established,” the draft says. “The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protected.”
At a press conference in Brussels, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said nothing in the text should be a surprise given what was agreed between in December between the EU and the British government.
The draft text gives legal effect to the pre-Christmas deal on the issues of citizens’ rights post Brexit, the financial settlement between the EU and UK, and issues specific to the island of Ireland.
It has been agreed among the remaining 27 EU members but is still subject to negotiation with London The DUP, which supports Ms May in a confidence and supply agreement in Westminster, has already objected to the contents of the text.
There is no mention in the paper of Britain’s promise in the initial negotiations in December to maintain regulatory harmony between the north of Ireland and the island of Britain. Brussels regards that as a domestic deal brokered by the London government with the DUP.
Mr Barnier said discussions on other options -- including British ideas for a ‘frictionless’ border or an overall trade deal -- could continue in parallel.
“My attitude is and always will be: key calm and be pragmatic,” he said, adding that he would meet Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein and Arlene Foster of the DUP next week.
He insisted “daily life around the border should continue as before... we stand by our commitment to discuss all three options.”
Welcoming the text, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, said the protocol gives legal effect to the firm commitments made in December, but added it is “very much a default and would only apply should it prove necessary”.
He said: “We have always been clear that our preference is to avoid a hard border through a wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK, a view we share with the British government.”
A new ‘hard border’ across Ireland would likely involve the return of militarised customs posts and/or border patrols and could fuel demands for a united Ireland.
Earlier this week, a letter from British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was leaked in which he indicated the British government was still considering such a border, despite its repeated denials.
Johnson claimed that if there was a hard border, 95% of traffic would still pass unchecked. But in a subsequent radio interview, Johnson bizarrely compared such a border with the introduction of the traffic congestion charge in London, for which vehicle details are recorded by camera.
Following the letter’s emergence, the British Labour Party called for Mr Johnson to be dismissed “before he can do any more damage”. “This man’s ego, and his ‘Brexit at any cost’ strategy cannot be allowed to jeopardise peace,” said Labour’s spokesperson on the North of Ireland, Owen Smith.
The British government distanced itself from Johnson’s statement and denied it was still making plans for a hard border.
In a related development, the Dublin and London governments have asked the parties in the North to put the Stormont talks on hold while intensive discussions on Brexit take place.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the Brexit negotiations were going to enter a very intense phase over the next couple of weeks. He told parliament that the two governments “have asked the parties to pause for reflection. We think that is advisable at this stage.”
Speaking following the publication of the EU’s draft Brexit withdrawal treaty today, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald TD has said “the Tory-DUP wrecking agenda cannot prevail”.
She welcomed the recognition, contained within the EU draft agreement, of the need for special arrangements for the North, including remaining within the Customs Union.
Speaking at Leaders’ Questions in the Dublin parliament, Ms McDonald said the British government and the ‘Brexiteers’ had “zero regard” for the impact on Ireland.
“No concern for our economy. No concern for the rights of our people. No concern for the peace process,” she said.
“Now, they want to conclude their debate, and make their exit, by putting the Good Friday Agreement through the shredder.
“The Tory-DUP axis is satisfied to treat the welfare of the people of this island as collateral damage so long as they achieve their ‘little Englander’ vision for Brexit.
“Their arrogance is best highlighted by their rejection of vote of the people of the North to remain in European Union and most recently crystallised by Boris Johnson’s juvenile and dangerous commentary.
“The DUP has hitched itself to the Tory wagon. They have put narrow political interests ahead of the good of the people of the North from all communities, ahead of our economic well-being and a head of the political process.
“The position of the Tory-DUP Brexiteers is that they will have their Brexit at any cost. Except it won’t be them who foots the bill. It will be the ordinary people of this island both north and south.
“That can’t be allowed to happen. The Tory-DUP wrecking agenda cannot prevail.
“Taoiseach, it is your job and that of government to ensure that this doesn’t happen. There is no doubt that the British government will attempt to undermine the text of this agreement in the time ahead.
“In the context of the DUP’s collapsing of the talks in the North, I asked you to convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. This development clearly adds weight to the need for that to happen.”