The EU has rightly made the issue of Ireland a central element of the Brexit negotiations. What might be the territorial impact of creating an external border between Ireland and Northern Ireland?
A cross-border conference in Dundalk, organised by RTPI, brought a sharp focus on the challenges facing border communities in Ireland as a result of Brexit. During the 2016 referendum campaign there was scant mention in Great Britain by either side, Leave or Remain, of how leaving the EU would affect Ireland and the province of Ulster. Mainland UK was therefore somewhat taken aback when the EU negotiators identified a solution to the “Irish question” as one of three preconditions to progress on trade talks, the other two being citizenship rights and the settling of financial accounts. However, nobody who has followed EU territorial policy making for the last 20 years could be unaware of the economic and political issues around borders. Indeed the Schengen Agreement, creating free movement across internal borders, actually dates back to 1985. An external borders fund – recognising the extra needs of countries with external EU borders, was part of the 2007-13 funding cycle.
Economic geographers have long recognised ways in which borders inhibit development by imposing transaction costs – tariffs, customs delays, regulatory differences etc. Unsurprisingly, EU policy has sought to remove such barriers. Nor is it surprising that the UK, in its Position Paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland, seeks to secure the status quo in north-south relations, with the exception that Northern Ireland would no longer be part of the EU. The partition of Ireland, the three decades of armed conflict, and the peace that came with the Good Friday Agreement all make these border issues extra sensitive. This border has long been a latent fracture lines of territorial cohesion at EU, national, regional and local scales. This influences the UK’s support for the continuation of funding through the PEACE programme, which is provided through the ERDF and Irish government, but also through the Northern Ireland Executive.
Similarly, the UK is prepared to accept a continuation of the Common Travel Area between the two countries after Brexit. UK citizens and Irish citizens would be able to move freely across the border. However, the same commitment is not given for people from other European Economic Area countries, though the hint is that their access to UK jobs and state benefits would be curtailed.
The Position Paper notes that each week 10,000 pigs are exported from Ireland to Northern Ireland, while a quarter of all milk produced in the North is sent for processing south of the border. These are just a couple of indications of the headache that customs checks could bring. The UK wants to find “unprecedented” solutions, with exemptions from checks and tariffs for small businesses trading across this “unique” border. There could be “trusted trader” arrangements for bigger companies, and lots of “administrative streamlining”. The border would be “seamless” but with “robust enforcement” through adopting “an innovative and untested approach”. Mmm….
Then there is the question of energy. A single energy market has been created across the whole island, which is also connected to Great Britain, but to nowhere else.Thus 40% of Ireland’s gas comes from Great Britain (as does nearly 100% of Northern Ireland’s). The vulnerability of Ireland’s small and isolated energy market is clear. Any deal worked out here will have implications for wider EU-UK post-Brexit energy arrangements, e.g. over traiffs.
Regional and Local level
The Position Paper does not engage with regional and local level impacts of Brexit: the people who write such documents do not think spatially. However, the RTPI conference in Dundalk illuminated the issues. As the report by The Planner records, Michael Gallagher, senior economist at Derry and Strabane Council, said “People’s livelihoods are at great risk.” Almost by definition, border regions tend to be peripheral and vulnerable. The soft, internal EU border has been a great success in terms of economic development of this peripheral part of both the UK and Ireland. A functional city region has grown up around Derry, but stretching across the border to take in towns like Letterkenny and rural areas of Donegal. As seen in other parts of the EU, notably around Luxembourg and across the Øresund bridge, people have moved to access cheaper house prices across a border while retaining access to jobs by a short commute. The result, as Gallagher noted, is 326,5777 border crossings each week over 58 roads between Derry and Donegal. Children are schooled, and doctors visited in Derry, by people resident in Donegal, who shop either side of the border. There is also commuting from the city to factories just a few kilometers away, but in Ireland, and goods shuttle over the border during processing. A third of Derry Council’s staff are international commuters.
In my own contribution to the Dundalk conference I highlighted some findings from ESPON research on cross-border co-operation. Success tends to come when initiatives are bottom-up, but they need a commitment of resources. Culture, economy, natural environment, tourism or infrastructure are typical foci of cross-border working. What is needed is political will, a legal framework to enable efficient co-operation and a shared vision for trans-border regional development.
So one option would be to produce a macro-regional strategy for the Irish Sea. Four macro-regional strategies currently have EU endorsement, those for the Baltic Sea Region, the Danube Region, the Adriatic and Ionian Region and the Alpine Region, with work progressing towards one for the Carpathian Region. Similarly, under the recently adopted European Urban Agenda, 12 urban partnerships have been set up. Each has a theme, but so far none of them has focused on health and well-being, a topic that should connect Dublin and Belfast but also other UK cities. The urban partnerships bring together the member states, the Commission, local authorities and other stakeholders such as businesss or NGOs, and focus on practical actions to deliver smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
For a legal instrument to facilitate cross-border working there is the option of forming a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation. Hungary and Ukraine for example use this to work together. Member states, regional or local authorities, or other associations can be members of an EGTC.So why not create an EGTC to develop a shared vision for the borderlands between the two parts of Ireland post-Brexit?
Last but not least there is always the opportunity to put in proposals for a targeted analysis project by ESPON. The deadline for proposals is 26 Janurary 2018. Meanwhile a recent ESPON report is calling for the mainstreaming of territorial cooperation in the post-2020 structural funds.
In the short term, I am pleased to see that RTPI has taken up my idea to build on the Dundalk event by doing a quick territorial impact analysis of hard and soft Brexit scenarios for the island of Ireland. If such an assessment has already been done – and it should have been – then it is not in the public realm, so the RTPI could prompt much needed discussion and debate.
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