A hard border would change that. And while Hoey’s opposition to such a change is shared on both sides of the Brexit negotiating table, her proposal that they therefore should simply not impose one is not—in part because it fails to recognize the circumstances that could make a stronger border necessary in the first place. In addition to leaving the EU, the U.K. has also opted to leave the bloc’s single market and customs union—membership to each of which has allowed goods and services to travel between the U.K. and the rest of its member states tariff-free. Absent a trade deal (which could take years to negotiate) or some sort of transition period, the U.K. will be subject to tariffs like any other country outside the single market and customs union once it leaves the EU in March 2019. This would make at least a customs border on the island of Ireland necessary from that point forward.
It’s not just EU law that mandates this. As a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose rules the U.K. will fall under once it leaves the EU, the U.K. will be required to impose its own customs checks. “The idea that you can just not have a border with the EU is mind-bogglingly ill informed,” Edward Burke, an assistant professor in international relations at the University of Nottingham, told me. “The WTO is really unyielding on this point that for international trade to work, every state needs to essentially police its borders from a customs point of view. … It’s non-negotiable.”
Both the U.K. and the EU have stressed the importance of finding a “flexible and imaginative,” solution to the Irish border issue, with some proposing that Northern Ireland be permitted to independently remain within the bloc’s single market and customs union—a special status that would effectively resolve the U.K.-EU land border issue and leave trade and freedom of movement within the island of Ireland largely unaffected. But it’s a solution that many hardline Brexiteers, including the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have rejected.
“They simply will not entertain at this point any potential exceptions, as complicated or as difficult but ultimately economically beneficial as they are,” Burke said of the DUP, which is currently propping up U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government in London. He noted that the party’s opposition to this is more political than economic, stemming from “visceral fears that go back to the idea that once you detach Northern Ireland in a more significant way from the rest of the U.K. in how it conducts international trade agreements [and] how it relates to the EU, that it’s essentially a political backdoor then for future conversations about Irish unity.”
The reason for that largely has to do with Irish and Northern Irish history, dating back to the decades-long period of sectarian fighting from the 1960s through much of the 1990s known as the Troubles. During this period, Unionists (who are represented by parties like the DUP) advocated for Northern Ireland to remain part of the U.K., while Republicans (who are now largely represented by parties like DUP’s opposition, Sinn Féin) advocated for the North to join the Republic of Ireland. While the conflict ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the underlying sensitivities are still in place. And on the border, it was the EU that mitigated them; Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K., satisfying Unionists, while being deeply integrated with the Republic of Ireland, as the Republicans wanted.