British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a defiant message Friday to the European Union over one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the Brexit negotiations, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
In a keynote speech to political and business leaders in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, May said she had put forward her blueprint for a trading relationship with the EU after Britain ends its membership of the bloc next March.
“We have now developed our proposals and put an approach on the table …it is now for the EU to respond,” May said.
She said the reality is that any agreement Britain reaches with the EU will have to provide for the frictionless movement of goods across border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
“I have said consistently that there can never be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” said May, adding: “During the referendum, both campaigns agreed that the border must remain absolutely unchanged. You only have to speak to businesses near the border, as I did yesterday, to see that the notion of a hard border is almost inconceivable.”
She said thousands of people who cross and re-cross between the UK and Ireland in the normal course of their daily lives cannot be subject to a hard border as they go to work, visit a neighbor, or go to the supermarket.
“In the Northern Ireland of today, where a seamless border enables unprecedented levels of trade and cooperation north and south, any form of infrastructure at the border is an alien concept. The practical consequences for people’s day to day lives are only part of the story.”
Under a proposal by Brussels, Northern Ireland would be represented in trade negotiations and in the World Trade Organisation on tariffs by the European Commission, not its own national government, said May
“The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third country’ customs border within our own country is something I will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could ever accept,” added May.
“The reality is that any agreement we reach with the EU will have to provide for the frictionless movement of goods across the Northern Ireland border,” she said.
May said some argued that Britain should declare it will not impose any checks at the border after Brexit, and if the EU required the Irish government to introduce checks, the blame would lie with them.
Insisting that would be wrong, May said: “We can’t solve it on our own, but nor can we wash our hands of any responsibility for it. So we must work together to solve it.”
May said in order to move the negotiations with Brussels on a future relationship forward Britain needed to put a credible third option on the table.
The whole of Britain will be outside the Customs Union and European Single Market, free to sign trade deals with countries around the world, said May adding that Britain will have regulatory freedom over its services sector, which accounts for 80 percent of the British economy.
The concept of no border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic was enshrined by the government’s of the two countries, and backed by a referendum of people across the island of Ireland. It was a key part 20 years ago of the Belfast Agreement that brought to an end decades of troubles which led to around 3,000 deaths.
“The seamless border is a foundation stone on which the Belfast Agreement rests, allowing for the just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities. Anything that undermines that is a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement,” said May.