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UK defends ‘frictionless’ post-Brexit Irish border as mutually beneficial

Key Points
  • U.K. government defends plans for an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic post-Brexit.
  • A white paper published Wednesday calls for "technological" measures to monitor the movement of goods.
  • It calls for the peace process to be guaranteed in Brexit negotiations.
A truck passes a former customs post in Jonesborough, Co. Armagh, on the northern side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
Niall Carson | PA Images | Getty Images

The British government has defended its plans to establish a "frictionless" border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic post-Brexit, saying that the plans are both workable and mutually beneficial.

In a white paper published Wednesday, the government said that there should be no border posts separating Britain from its only EU land neighbor and instead there should be "technological measures" to help monitor the movement of goods once the U.K. leaves the customs union.

These could include number plate recognition technology and spot vehicle checks, the paper, which was published ahead of the third round of Brexit talks, said.

The announcement comes after the U.K. government was accused of fantasizing about its post-Brexit plans on Tuesday, when it published a white paper proposing a temporary three year customs union agreement with the EU after Brexit. The customs union is a deal which allows for the tariff-free movement of goods between EU countries.

The plans are no 'fantasy'

Northern Ireland's secretary of state James Brokenshire said Wednesday that he did not accept that the government's plans were a "fantasy."

"This isn't just some sort of unilateral, one-way issue that I'm talking about here. When you look at the trade that the U.K. has with Ireland it's around £13.6 billion ($17.5 billion). But equally the trade from Ireland to the U.K. is around £9.1 billion. It is that flow of trade that we see in both directions which is why this matters for both of us," Brokenshire told the BBC's 'Today' Program.

The continuation of a free and open border is not just an economic issue, but a highly sensitive political one given the decades of violence over whether Northern Ireland should be part of Britain or Ireland.

Garda, Irish police, checkpoint in Donegal on border with Northern Ireland.
Alain Le Garsmeur | Getty Images

The white paper outlined plans to protect the Good Friday Agreement, which was developed to ensure peace between Northern Ireland and the Republic, as well as the Common Travel Area and the rights of U.K. and Irish citizens.

Writing in the Irish national newspaper the Irish News on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May also said that the U.K. would consider replacing some EU funding for peace projects in Northern Ireland.

"The U.K. Government is determined to protect the unique arrangements between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the wider relationship between the UK and Ireland. Protecting your citizenship rights, and protecting the Belfast Agreement, are at the heart of our approach," she wrote.

The Irish government welcomed the proposals and called for talks in Brussels at the end of August to focus on resolving key issues of citizens' rights and Britain's divorce bill in order to move onto talks of future partnerships, including regarding the customs union.

Britain on the front foot

The plans for the Irish border were also welcomed by political commentators, who said that the U.K. was finally starting to take to lead on negotiations.

"It's good quite frankly to see the U.K. government being on the front foot for a change. It's done a lot of listening and now it's starting to provide some answers," Andrew Hood, senior advisor at law firm Dechert and former legal adviser to May, told CNBC Wednesday.

Beat Wittmann, partner and chairman at Porta Advisors, agreed with Brokenshire that there is interest on both sides to find a peaceful solution to the issue of the Irish border.

"I think the EU and the U.K. will be very innovative and the EU will be very accommodative to this situation," he said.

This could involve a combination of a "technological" solution and a special status deal, according to Simon French, chief economist at Panmure Gordon. Though establishing such solutions in a timeframe of just over 18 months will be difficult he noted.

The response comes as the U.K. faces wide-spread criticism for its apparent lack of direction in talks.

"The only bit where I'm optimistic is with the Northern Ireland situation," Nelson noted. "I think the U.K. government has not even started to understand the other issues."