U.K. Can't Make Irish Peace a Brexit Bargain Chip, EU Says

(Bloomberg) -- European Union officials warned Britain not to make peace in Ireland a bargaining chip in their bid for a post-Brexit U.K.-EU trade deal.

With talks on the U.K.’s withdrawal from the bloc scheduled to resume next week, officials in Brussels said they wanted Theresa May’s government to come up with more ideas to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as invisible as possible. The U.K. needed to take responsibility for the impact Brexit would have on the island, according to the officials, who asked not to be named, citing policy. 

U.K. Can't Make Irish Peace a Brexit Bargain Chip, EU Says

The question of how to control trade and immigration across the U.K.’s 310-mile (500-kilometer) land border with Ireland after Brexit is shaping up to be one of the thorniest issues of the talks. While checks have largely melted away after a peace agreement in the 1990s following decades of violence, the Irish are worried that any new border infrastructure could become a target for attacks.

In a proposal presented on Aug. 16, the U.K. said it wanted to avoid any physical border or customs checks with Ireland as part of any Brexit deal with the EU, calling for more “flexibility and imagination” to devise arrangements on the island of Ireland that preserve free movement of people and goods across the border.

The document alarmed EU diplomats and Brexit negotiators who interpreted it as partly implying that the U.K. could wash its hands of the border problem and leave the EU to deal with the fallout.

Workable Solutions

Speaking to reporters on Friday, EU officials said the U.K.’s paper on Ireland, while good on aspirations, is lacking workable solutions on how the North-South border in Ireland will work in the future.  The officials said they were concerned about Britain linking the preservation of the peace process to the country’s future trade deal with the EU.

A U.K. official who also asked not to be named responded that they were puzzled by the comments from Brussels. They said Britain’s paper on Northern Ireland made the position clear, and that the comments from the commission suggested that the EU didn’t appreciate the sensitivities around Northern Ireland. They added that the negotiations weren’t a game with bargaining chips.

The Irish government has said it won’t be used as a pawn in wider negotiations on the terms of the U.K.’s departure from the European Union. The bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier maintains customs controls are part of EU border management, and French farmers are already objecting to an open border because of worries that cheaper non-European imports will enter the EU via the U.K.

Border Dilemma

The EU and the U.K. will seek to agree on broad principles on the Irish border dilemma in coming months to prevent the search for a solution holding up the wider Brexit talks, officials said last month.

Ireland is one of three issues in which there needs to be “sufficient progress” by October for EU leaders to authorize the start of post-Brexit trade discussions. While U.K. officials are optimistic they’ll achieve that, the EU side is much more skeptical.

Big disagreements between the two sets of negotiators are unlikely to be bridged at next week’s negotiating round. The U.K.’s insistence that it won’t reveal where it believes it has financial obligations to the EU risked the talks failing, European officials said.