BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British-ruled Northern Ireland will automatically have a “hard border” with its southern neighbour if Britain leaves the European Union without a withdrawal agreement, the European Commission’s chief spokesman said on Tuesday.
The remark to reporters by Margaritis Schinas reflected the EU’s position that Ireland, like other member states, would have to enforce EU customs and other checks on imports from Britain after Brexit in the absence of a special deal.
Responding to Schinas’ comments, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said Britain would do everything it could to prevent a hard border.
Brussels and Dublin have pushed the British government to focus on agreeing to a withdrawal agreement to ease Britain’s departure that would ensure the land border does not fuel renewed violence in Northern Ireland. Three decades of civil conflict in the British province was ended by a 1998 peace accord known as the Good Friday Agreement.
Pushed to give the EU position on ensuring the border stays unencumbered as agreed in the peace deal, Schinas said: “If you’d like ... to push me and speculate on what might happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it’s pretty obvious — you will have a hard border.”
The Union’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, “will have to take inevitably into account this fact”, he added, while insisting the EU would stand behind the peace accords.
Policymakers have said little in detail on what might happen on the Irish border in the event of Britain leaving without a deal on March 29. The EU has said it will not allow a situation in which British goods could enter its single market without observing regulations imposed across the bloc.
A “backstop” protocol dealing with the Irish border in the withdrawal agreement negotiated by British Prime Minister Theresa May last month was cited by many British lawmakers as a reason for their rejecting May’s deal last week.
Under the backstop, Britain would remain bound by many EU rules until a way was negotiated to ensure British goods meet EU regulations without having to be checked on the Irish border.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government has taken a line that there would have to be “difficult conversations” over border arrangements if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.
“We will not accept a hard border on this island and therefore we are not planning for one,” an Irish government spokesman said on Tuesday.
“Working out suitable customs and trade arrangements compatible with our EU membership will require detailed discussion with the Commission, while the UK will also need to live up to its responsibilities. We are under no illusions about how challenging that would be.”
Two months ago, Varadkar said: “In a no-deal scenario, it would be very difficult to avoid a hard border because of the obvious fact that, Ireland remaining part of the European Union, would no doubt be asked to implement European Union law.”
Schinas said there was no change in the EU position after May said she would seek amendments to the draft withdrawal treaty. The text, he said, was “not open for negotiation”.
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr, Editing by Catherine Evans