The European Commission set three tasks for the first round of talks between the UK and the EU: the financial settlement, treatment of EU citizens, and the Irish border. For all the noble talk of preserving the Northern Irish peace process the border discussion seems to have no real role in that first round of talks. There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland since 1922 when the Irish border came into existence. Immigration policy is not an EU matter, but is reserved to its member states, which means that an immigration issues are for Ireland to settle. So there is no Brexit-related issue for the Irish border apart from that of cross-border trade, which is the very issue that the European Commission will not permit discussion on until the first stage of negotiations are complete. The only rationale for the presence of the Irish border in the first round of negotiations is as a wrecking ball to prevent progress and keep the discussion on the issue dearest to the European Commission's heart: how much money can be extracted from the British exchequer before the UK leaves.
Any political settlement in Northern Ireland takes years to negotiate and there are constant breakdowns in the process, as illustrated in the fact that there has been no functioning Northern Irish government since before the UK government triggered the Article 50 exit process. So to place a discussion of the Irish border in the first round of negotiations can have little effect other than to ensure that there is no progress to a second stage of negotiations. The proposed solutions have resulted in the usual mutually incompatible positions: nationalists want Northern Ireland to be seen as part of the EU customs union and single market, while unionists refuse to countenance friction between Northern Ireland and its main market in the rest of the UK.
There is a clear purpose for a third strand in the first round of negotiations, so that the European Commission can refute the accusation that they are using the rights of UK citizens in the remaining 27 EU member states to extract more money from the UK government. There is, however, no reason for having the Irish border as that third strand, as the border issue is a matter of post-Brexit trade between the EU and the UK. It is not a matter of citizenship as everyone born in Northern Ireland has a right to Irish (and therefore EU) citizenship. The approximately 150,000 Northern Irish residents from the other 26 member states will have their citizenship dealt with under the discussion of how such freedom of movement residents are dealt with throughout the UK. It is not a matter of security, despite the warnings about a return to the border of the past, because such security measures would be a decision for the British government. Equally the worries about the Irish border becoming the new entry point into the UK for economic migrants is a matter for UK immigration policy. Only trade concerns the post-Brexit policies of the EU and that is a discussion for the second stage of negotiations.
Even those trade issues are not really a matter for EU/UK negotiations as the principle problem is how to reconcile the situation of allowing trade between the two jurisdictions in Ireland, while preserving the protectionist nature of the EU customs union. In other words that is a matter for discussion between the EU and Ireland. Special status for Northern Ireland is not the source of the solution. Rather the most likely solution is Ireland having a special status within the EU customs union. Claims from both the Irish government and the European Commission that the UK government must come up with a solution are a smokescreen to hide the fact that the problem is not Northern Ireland's status within the UK, but Ireland's status within the EU. The 27 remaining EU member states have pursued a policy of unanimity in relation to the UK's exit, but until Ireland negotiates its separate status with the other 26 members there can be no progress. Consequently placing the Irish border in the first round of Brexit negotiations appears to have no purpose other than to wreck any hope of progress to the second round.
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