The Brief, powered by Eurogas – Squaring the circle of the Irish border

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

One of the three big issues in the first phase of Brexit talks, next to the financial settlement and citizens’ rights, is the problem of the Irish border – the UK’s only physical contact with the rest of the EU.

No one wants a ‘hard border’ on the island, which is co-habited by EU and eurozone member Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland. But strictly speaking, a border will be needed if and when the UK leaves the EU. This is why negotiators speak of “flexible and imaginative solutions”.

One such flexible and imaginative solution could be that the UK leaves the EU’s internal market and customs union but Northern Ireland remains part of the customs union.

The customs union is a principal component of the EU. No customs duties are levied on goods travelling within the customs union and – unlike a free trade area – members of the customs union impose a common external tariff on all goods entering the union.

The European Parliament’s Brexit point man Guy Verhofstadt, who can afford to be more outspoken that the real EU negotiator Michel Barnier, promoted this idea on a recent visit to Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society and his plea was rejected by the Unionists, who traditionally want closer links with Great Britain.

What makes things more difficult is that a small Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is in coalition with Theresa May’s Tories. In contrast, the Republicans, Sinn Féin, are supportive of Verhofstadt’s proposal.

More importantly, the Republic of Ireland is also supportive. Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan went to London on Wednesday  to lobby for avoiding a hard border by keeping Northern Ireland inside the customs union.

Diplomats say the border issue is deadlocked because Northern Ireland doesn’t have its own government proper. It has a so-called “Northern Ireland Executive” in which no-one, not even the first minister, has competence on the issue.

Under the 1998 devolution arrangement, the government and parliament in London are responsible for ‘reserved’ and ‘excepted matters’ in Northern Ireland.

Reserved matters are a list of policy areas (such as civil aviation, units of measurement, and human genetics), which the Westminster Parliament may eventually devolve to the Northern Ireland Assembly at some time in the future. Excepted matters (such as international relations, taxation and elections) are never expected to be considered for devolution.

So the issue is that there is no one to talk to in Belfast, and that the two main forces there are at loggerheads. The flexible and imaginative solution would be for the UK to devolve more power to Northern Ireland so that its government can move forward. And the experience could then be repeated with Gibraltar.

Gas is an ideal partner for balancing variable renewable electricity production
and demand. Gas can also be renewable. Renewable gas can be used in all
sectors – heating, transport and power generation – and can be a strong force in
Europe’s energy transition. Join our Annual Conference to learn more.

The Roundup

Tiny Denmark could block giant Russian gas pipe project: if approved, the new law would require all projects that could pose a potential threat to the nation to be agreed by defence and security ministers. Bye-bye Nord Stream 2?

France and Germany seek to reform cohesion funds, by making receipt of grants contingent upon the respect for the rule of law and proportional taxation for businesses. Stopping the EU bonanza could deepen the East-West divide.

Poland’s public investment relies heavily on EU cohesion funds, a new report shows. Its olitical relations with Brussels – a little less smooth.

Where will we sit? This is the question Macron’s party is asking ahead of the 2019 election, as the French president considers launching his own political group in the Brussels hemicycle.

Energy self-sufficiency is France’s next objective. To do so, it will seek to more than double its solar capacity. But the issue stays the same: storage capacity.

Science fiction or science fact? To bring European farming into the digital era, we need to bridge the digital divide.

Little-known central Asia republics suggest ambitious proposal. Plagued by uranium pollution and losing the world’s biggest lake to Russian pollution, Kazakh president urges UN members to transfer 1% of their defence budgets to sustainable development.

100 global cities are driving the switch to sustainability. Read how in our interview with Michael Berkowitz, president of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

Efficiency, greenhouse gas savings and low noise should be enough reasons to go electric. But the car industry needs a push from policymakers, writes Kristian Ruby of Eurelectric.

Ageing population, high unemployment, austerity: are welfare states a thing of the past? Perhaps not, if the public and private sector work together to protect the most vulnerable. Read our interview with insurer-in-chief Gary Shaughnessy of Zurich.

In 2020, 80% of drugs consumed would be generic – great news for health budgets, but the pharma industry with have little incentive to innovate. The Commission comes to its aid with a plan for “second-generation” patents.

The EU is lagging behind on its target of cutting cancer deaths by 15% by 2020. But thrombosis – a blood clot in your leg veins- is a leading cause of death in cancer patients, and it can be prevented.

Look out for…

Austria goes to the polls on Sunday. Whizkid Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old leader of the People’s Party, is tipped to become Europe’s youngest head of government.

Views are the author’s

Share the Brief

Subscribe to our newsletters