Automobiles pass a poster reading 'No EU Frontier in Ireland, No hard Border, Respect the remain vote' erected by campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit, in Killeen, Northern Ireland, on Friday, July 20, 2018. How to keep the Irish border open after the U.K. leaves the European Union has become the trickiest issue in Brexit negotiations. Photographer: Mary Turner/Bloomberg
The question of a return to a hard border in Ireland is one of the most sensitive in the Brexit negotiations © Bloomberg

EU tensions over Northern Ireland burst into the open on Tuesday as the European Commission contradicted Dublin’s claim that there would be no need for a “hard border” on the island of Ireland, even if Britain left the bloc without a deal.

In unusually candid remarks on a subject that both Brussels and Dublin have avoided until now, the commission said a no-deal Brexit would lead to the return of border infrastructure between Ireland and the North.

The comments undercut Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, who has insisted that Dublin was doing “no planning whatsoever” for a hard border, so as to prevent such an outcome from becoming a “self fulfilling prophecy”. Ireland reiterated on Tuesday that it would oppose border checks. 

The question of the status of Northern Ireland is one of the most sensitive in Brexit negotiations, both for its potential impact on the province’s peace process and on Theresa May’s draft Brexit agreement, whose most contentious provision is a backstop arrangement to maintain an open land border under all circumstances.

To date Dublin and Brussels had sidestepped addressing the consequences of a no-deal exit, fearing it would stoke tensions and distract from the backstop plan.

But the diplomatic silence began to break after the House of Commons’ rejection last week of Mrs May’s Brexit deal.

The UK prime minister has made revisions to the backstop her main priority to save her draft package. British officials believe a candid discussion of no-deal risks could make Ireland and the EU more willing to agree to such a renegotiation. 

At present, the EU is publicly standing behind Mr Varadkar and refusing to contemplate overruling Ireland on the backstop. An initiative by Poland to put a five-year time limit on the backstop was shot down by other member states and the commission on Monday.

But some EU diplomats are open to compromise over the backstop, as long as the initiative is taken by Dublin. They see public scrutiny of no-deal scenarios as a way to change the political calculus so Mr Varadkar might volunteer concessions. 

Breaking with convention, Margaritis Schinas, the commission’s chief spokesperson, said on Tuesday that it was “pretty obvious” that Britain’s exit from the EU without a deal would prompt the return of border infrastructure, even at the risk of undermining peace in Northern Ireland. He made clear that the commission’s willingness to discuss the issue reflected the increased possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

“If you want to push me on what would happen in a no-deal scenario in Ireland, I think it is pretty obvious. You would have a hard border,” Mr Schinas said at the commission’s daily press conference. 

“Of course we are for peace. Of course we stand behind the Good Friday [peace] Agreement” he added. “But that is what a no-deal scenario entails.”

In response the Irish government said it would not accept any border checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in the event of a no-deal and warned that difficult talks with Brussels would be required in such an event.

“The Irish government will not support the re-emergence of border infrastructure on this island. We’re not planning for it in no-deal Brexit planning,” Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy premier, told reporters in Dublin on Tuesday.

“But, certainly, if we don’t have a withdrawal agreement, it becomes very, very difficult to prevent that and we would need to work very, very closely with the European Commission and the British government who have an obligation towards relationships on this island.”

Mr Coveney said Mr Schinas’s remarks were “a reflection of the fact that the commission has to focus on protecting the integrity of the single market and customs union”.

Brexiters point to the reticence of both Britain and Mr Varadkar towards erecting a hard border, even in a no-deal scenario, as proof that the backstop is unnecessary. 

Mrs May’s spokesman said on Tuesday that the matter was not solely in the UK’s hands.

“The prime minister has stated in the past we will do everything we can to prevent a hard border,” he said. “But simply saying that isn’t sufficient.”

Downing Street said Mrs May believed it was “overwhelmingly in our interest to leave with a deal”, but had not ruled out the possibility of a hard exit on March 29.

The EU has released detailed contingency plans for a no-deal exit, covering all sectors of the economy, but no specific arrangements have been made public regarding Northern Ireland, the only open UK-EU land border. 

Some senior EU diplomats were surprised by Mr Varadkar’s forthright dismissal of the need for a hard border. They see no choice but to require Ireland to enforce checks on trade to protect the common border of the single market. 

Mr Schinas said a no-deal Brexit would put many of the advances made in the peace process “at risk” because of the need for border infrastructure to return. “That is something we want to address in the framework of our contingency work with Ireland,” he added, while declining to say when any EU contingency plans would be published.

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