The Republic of Ireland, The European Union and the Common Travel Area: The facts.
By Alan Love
Much has been made, before and after the United Kingdom’s Referendum on European Union membership, of the fact that the UK’s only land frontier, that with Ireland, will become an external frontier of the EU when BREXIT is finally concluded. The issue has been consistently raised in both the UK and Ireland by those who wanted the UK to remain in the EU. These people argue that the present open border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland will inevitably become a “hard” border with immigration and customs checks. They predict a collapse of The Common Travel Area, to which both countries have belonged since 1923, with consequent disruption to travel and trade.
What is consistently, and deliberately, ignored by proponents of the above argument is the fact that since the UK and Ireland simultaneously joined the EU 43 years ago the Common Travel Area already contains external frontiers of the EU. It has become convenient to omit mentioning that the Common Travel Area (CTA) also includes the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey. None of these Island states are members of the EU. (Alderney and Sark come under the Bailiwick of Guernsey and are, therefore, also included in the CTA.) Admittedly, the external frontiers of the EU with these states are marine frontiers but nevertheless, the arrangements for travel between, for example, Jersey and Ireland follow the same rules as elsewhere in the CTA.
In theory, travellers from one CTA state can move to another without the need for passports or customs checks. There is a minimal amount of customs work involved where states such as the Channel Islands are involved due to VAT arrangements (but this is an exception.) In crossing the land frontier between the UK and Ireland the theory becomes practice. I do not need to bring my passport when I travel by car, bus or train from my home in Northern Ireland to a destination in the Republic of Ireland.
Things are admittedly different when crossing the marine frontiers by air or ferry. Most, if not all, carriers insist on photographic i.d. and make little secret of their preference for passports. Other requirements including luggage searching are also in place. This is, of course, a result of the threat of terrorism and applies equally to travel between different parts of the UK, including between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Additionally, restrictions and requirements placed on travellers from outside the EU and CTA entering the UK or Ireland via air and sea ports mean that CTA travellers may have to prove that they are entitled to enter those countries. There are further complications arising out of travellers from some countries not requiring a visa to enter the UK but needing one for Ireland. There are other countries where the reverse situation applies. However, these are minor issues.
So, effectively, the problem of EU external frontiers running through the CTA has been dealt with for decades. When the UK leaves the EU, given a sensible self-interested attitude by the latter, the redrawing of that frontier will have minimal effect. The Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has committed his government to work towards the continuation of an open land frontier while the UK is keen to cement a free trade agreement with the entire remnant EU.
There is one element of doubt. Should the EU adopt a punitive attitude towards the UK and block any free trade agreements it may well insist on Ireland leaving the CTA. Given the trade deficit the UK has with the EU this would be unlikely and, in any event, be short lived. The damage to the economies of EU members, particularly France and Germany, would be unsustainable. But an economy such as that of the Republic of Ireland would take a major hit in the interim.
There are some influential figures in Ireland who share the view that the UK must be disadvantaged by BREXIT. It is anybody’s guess how long they will hold to this view as the proposed EU harmonisation of taxes forces Ireland to raise corporation tax. I suspect that, if no free trade agreements are reached, Ireland will be ordered to impose EU tariffs against UK goods. That would reduce that country to a little valued isolated vassal state of an EU locked in a tariff war with the UK.
Under those circumstances, the clamour from most people in Ireland for an exit from the EU will become deafening. There is already strong support in some quarters for Ireland to join the Commonwealth. Should those circumstances arise it would be in the best interests of the UK to provide every assistance to Ireland to make a smooth exit from the EU and become a valued trading neighbour.