Right now the UK seems to be in a stalemate in regards to the Irish border situation post-Brexit:

  • If they don't leave the Single Market, Brexit would be effectively a farce as the UK would be forced to keep their borders open to immigration by EU citizens.
  • If they leave the Single Market, they'll have to introduce customs controls at the Irish border, which is problematic for local residents.
  • If they instead introduce customs controls between Northern Ireland and the UK, they'll be effectively alienating their citizens living on the Irish isles. And Northern Ireland would then be forced to allow EU citizens to settle there, being a part of the Single Market.

Given this issue, how could the UK possibly afford to leave the EU without risking Irish reunification? Did the government ever propose an alternative solution that would resolve the stalemate?

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    @chirlu being in the customs union means you must accept the Freedom of Movement, which is the whole reason Brexit is happening in the first place. Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 16:33
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    @JonathanReez: There is no freedom of movement in the EU/Turkey relationship, even though they have a customs union. As I said before (but you don’t seem to understand), a customs union is far less than a single market or the EEA. (For an invisible Irish border, a hypothetical EU–UK customs union would need to encompass agricultural products, unlike the EU–Turkey customs union.)
    – chirlu
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 17:35
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    @JonathanReez: Yes, because the customs union is not comprehensive, in particular excluding agricultural products as well as some others. Again, as I said before: “For an invisible Irish border, a hypothetical EU–UK customs union would need to encompass agricultural products, unlike the EU–Turkey customs union.”
    – chirlu
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 17:45
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    It would be great to know exactly what the hard core Brexiteers think a good solution would be. That is those cabinet members who want the UK out of the customs union and not subject to the ECJ. Have they proposed anything yet on this or do they just complain about what other people propose?
    – Simd
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 9:27
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    @JonathanReez True. Every possible outcome is unacceptable to a substantial number of people. Just today my colleague said "maybe something good will come out of Brexit, like Irish reunification". Well, good luck with that…
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 19:38

8 Answers 8


They can't

(Note, I'm writing this as a placeholder default answer, since this IS the answer to the question unless a better answer turns up. Perhaps it should be a community wiki?)

There is simply no way that status quo can be upheld between the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK leaves the Single Market.

Naturally, it is extremely likely that (unless the Brexit process is aborted) there will be some sort of customs union or similar agreement between UK and EU. It is also very likely that there will be some special domestic arrangements regarding Northern Ireland. However, in the end any Brexit implies stricter borders between the united kingdom and its European Union neighbours. Those borders might be enforced between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Britain. Inevitably NI will be separated from Ireland and/or Britain to some extent.

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    @Lembik Andorra also happens to have no borders with any other states, nor does it have any airports or seaports. So you couldn't smuggle anything through Andorra even if you tried. In addition they're a very tiny country. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 9:30
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    I don't think Johnson et al. ever seriously thought about the Irish border until Brexit negotiations made them. As far as we can tell, they don't specifically want a hard border, but would prefer if the whole problem just went away. This attitude is reflected in current UK policy, which proposes technological fixes to sidestep the need for customs checks -- which Ireland and other EU governments are not convinced is viable. Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 10:01
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    @Lembik et al: It's not that it's impossible for a non-eu country to have an open-ish border with eu neighbours. Certainly not. (Consider Switzerland and Norway) The contradiction is changing the nature of the border between UK and RI without affecting either the border between RI and NI or between NI and GB. ie Status quo for NI is impossible.
    – Guran
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 10:32
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    @Lembik: The UK government is somewhat vague on the details. Their official position paper acknowledged "this is an innovative and untested approach that would take time to develop and implement." Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 10:49
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    @RoyalCanadianBandit Oh wow. That document really makes it clear what a massive problem the UK govt has in this negotiation.
    – Simd
    Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 10:53

Did the government ever propose an alternative solution that would resolve the stalemate?


By "the government" you mean the current and prior conservative governments elected in 2015 and 2017 first led by David Cameron and then by Theresa May.

Prior to the referendum, Cameron's government was in favour of remaining in the EU - it wasn't useful for that government to identify solutions to problems that would be created by the actions advocated by their opponents.

After the referendum, the policy of Theresa May's government is to "not reveal its hand ahead of time"

Regardless of how we feel about this situation, these are the facts.

Theresa May's government did publish a document on future customs arrangements but this did not (so far as I can see) include a solution. It says

The land border with Ireland

43. The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the UK’s only land border. We must avoid a return to a hard border, and trade and everyday movements across the land
border must be protected as part of the UK-EU deal.

44. The proposals set out above for new customs approaches are first steps to meet our objective of trade across that land border being as seamless and frictionless as possible, but further steps will be necessary. The Government welcomes the clear commitment made in the European Council’s negotiating guidelines and the European Commission’s directives to work with us on “flexible and imaginative” solutions to achieve this, and we will be setting out our guiding principles for a land border arrangement in a forthcoming publication.

45. The Government has made clear that the answer to avoiding a hard border between
Northern Ireland and Ireland cannot be to impose a new customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We should avoid any approach that would create new barriers to doing business within the UK (including between Northern Ireland and Great Britain).

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    . The border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the UK’s only land border. What about Gibraltar-Spain border ?
    – Bregalad
    Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 7:29
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    @Bregalad - a British Overseas Territory but not, so far as I'm aware, actually part of the UK. Commented Nov 24, 2017 at 12:27

UK could offer Republic of Ireland to leave EU as well. By offering it large sums of money for example. In this case - Republic of Ireland would acquire the hard border with EU and it would not have the border with Northern Ireland.

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    They might as well propose that the Republic of Ireland rejoin the United Kingdom… fanciful.
    – gerrit
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 20:33
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    Do not underestimate the power of red bus with some words on it..
    – user14429
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 21:09
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    The Republic already has a hard border with the rest of the EU. It is an island! The EU could easily resolve the problem, by extending the checks on shipping arriving at Rotterdam to include ships from Ireland as well as from non-EU countries. If the Dublin government was to leave the EU, the beneficial economic arrangements which existed between the UK and Eire prior to 1973 could be resumed, with no need for the Republic to be governed from either London or Brussels.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 3:21
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    @Ed999 The hardness of the border concerns regulations and controls, not geography. The main reason Ireland didn't join the Schengen area, as far as I understand it, was the UK's decision not to, along with the common travel area. For customs controls, though, the border between Ireland and the rest of the EU is open.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 17:08
  • The logic of your argument is that the Republic must leave the EU because the UK has, just as the Republic refused Schengen because the UK did. Because the Republic cannot trade freely with the rest of the EU, due to geography, it actually has a genuine border with the EU. Thus controls are easy to apply, especially as Rotterdam already has such controls, which it uses on all non-EU traffic. Trade is not a real issue, because of how easy it actually would be for Rotterdam to handle Irish imports in exactly the same way as non-EU imports.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 1:28

In order to maintain the current soft border even after leaving the single market, the UK would need to:

  • Accept the free flow of EU citizens over the border. That might be possible as it would still be difficult for those people to work in the UK, which seems to be the primary concern, but would allow. However, it would still allow people to bypass the UK immigration system via the Surinder Singh Route, for example.

  • Accept EU regulations on goods and services. Without border checks there would be nothing to stop goods flowing in either direction. An alternative that has been proposed is to use some kind of high tech system to create a virtual border check, but similar arrangements in Norway/Sweden are nothing like what Ireland/UK has now.

  • Set up a vast new import/export duty system in an unrealistically short timeframe.

  • The closer you get to an open border similar to what we have today, the closer you get to effectively being in the single market. For example, in terms of accepting EU standards and rules to ensure a level playing field for both parties, and accepting EU court rulings on arbitration. For political reasons these things will be difficult to accept.

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    AFAIK Surinder Singh only applies to family of UK citizens not to "people" in general. It might be worth changing "people" to "some people" or to "family of UK citizens". The first point's second sentence seems cut short: ", but would allow." - a soft border to remain? immigration via the Surinder Singh route? Commented Nov 22, 2017 at 17:17
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    Not just the families of British citizens, but also any EU citizens who had permanent leave to remain in the UK but would still have to apply under the normal visa rules for their family members. The EU is pretty adamant that EU citizens will retain that and other rights.
    – user
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 11:21
  • "Accept EU regulations on goods and services." That goes both ways: the EU has to accept the UK regulations as well. If the EU doesn't want to allow things that might be allowed in the UK after Brexit, then the EU should start border controls.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 17:58
  • @Sjoerd that is true. For example, some Brexiteers have talked about a free trade deal with the US, so presumably hormone/antibiotic infused beef will be on the menu. The UK would either have to create some system to prevent it being re-exported to the EU somehow (near impossible) or accept border checks.
    – user
    Commented Mar 18, 2018 at 18:49
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    "Without border checks there would be nothing to stop goods flowing in either direction.", mind you there seems to be precious little stopping noncompliant goods flowing in from outside the EU as it is. At least for small shipments EU customs seems to work largely on the honour system. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 16:05

I think it will be a combination of:

  1. No UK borders for goods or people on the island.
  2. Border for peoples at ports of entry in the UK. There will be a passport check for people entering the UK. Just as is the case now. People with a UK/Irish passport will be given automatic access to the UK (of course, bearing research warrants ect..).

The reason I envision this is because this outcome would be quiet beneficial from the UK point of view. It also requires no acceptance by the EU and maintains the Good Friday agreement.

Point 1. forces the UK to be essentially open to imports of goods from the EU. This status-quo on trading of goods is, I think, still the default target of the UK gov't (Politically, Brexit is about control of regulation, migration flows and contributions to the EU budget. Restricting trading in goods is not part of the UK agenda). The UK will leave it be up to the EU to place a border for goods on the northern Ireland/Ireland border or between Ireland and the continent.

Of course, doing either is politically infeasible for the EU. Consequently, the UK will effectively be a back door to imports of goods into the EU. This would give the UK enormous leverage to negotiate trading deals with third parties.

For all the EU bombast in the press, this strategy exploits a glaring weakness in the EU's negotiation position going in: each country (including Ireland in this case) has veto power on any post Art50 agreement. The UK just needs to push the individual pain points.

  • You appear to envision a customs union between the UK and Eire, which is feasible if Eire, too, leaves the EU. In that event, there could be a resumption of the beneficial trading arrangement between the two countries which existed prior to 1973.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 3:43
  • @Ed999: I envision this happening by 'fait accomplis' without any agreement, just because neither party (IE, UK, EU) wishes to put a hard border on the island.
    – user189035
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 6:48
  • Oh, we disagree at this point. I think the government in London, and the government in Dublin, pretty much agree with you, and don't want to violate the Good Friday Agreement. But I don't see any evidence that the bureaucrats in Brussels agree with you, indeed there seems every prospect that they will try to frustrate the Good Friday Agreement by seeking to impose a 'hard' border between N.I. and the Republic.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 1:19
  • How is it the EU which is trying to "frustrate the Good Friday Agreement by seeking to impose a 'hard' border between N.I. and the Republic" ??? The entity responsible for the arising problem of a hard border anywhere is the entity who decided to leave a group and decided to be on its own. There was no border problem to "fix" when there was no border needed. The border is only needed because the UK alone (not the EU nor the Republic of Ireland) decided to isolate itself (allegedly before they foresaw the problem coming).
    – Hoki
    Commented Sep 12, 2019 at 11:19

Northern Ireland could leave the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Then the hard border would be between the UK and Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland could keep a soft border with the Republic of Ireland.

Of course, Spain might prefer not to allow this, as it could be considered to set a bad precedent regarding Catalonia. Other countries might have similar concerns.

Unfortunately, it's not up to Northern Ireland or the UK. The European Union would need to agree so long as the Republic of Ireland remains in the EU. But if we're spitballing possibilities regardless of whether they are feasible to implement, then this is one.

  • Your proposal was already made by the Scottish SNP leader to the EU, and rejected by the EU, in regard to Scotland. There is no reason to suppose the EU would agree an identical proposal for Northern Ireland, having rejected it for Scotland.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 3:36
  • It wouldn't be an identical proposal. Scotland would have been a new country. Norther Ireland would be an addition to an existing EU member, the Republic of Ireland.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 15:50
  • @gnasher729 this answer doesn't propose that NI would become part of the Republic.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 17:13

The UK does not have to resolve the conundrum, because there is no conundrum.

Some years ago, the UK Government triggered the Treaty provision which allows an EU member to unilaterally withdraw from the Union. That exit will occur next March.

Nothing further need be done.

The EU is keen to agree new rules that will bind the UK after that date, but the UK Parliament is not keen to do so. This is called a no-deal Brexit.

Economic relations between the UK and the EU will then proceed on WTO terms, without the need to agree any further restrictions. The UK will be out, and no longer subject to EU control.

Ideally, the UK might then seek to negotiate a free trade deal on the Canadian model. This took Canada 16 years to negotiate, so it would seem likely to be a long-term goal only, with normal trade proceeding meanwhile on World Trade Organisation terms.

This now seems the most likely outcome.

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    Except that a no deal Brexit will result in a hard border in Ireland. Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 11:41
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    And a hard border in Ireland could lead to all kinds of nasty consequences which both EU and UK really, really want to avoid.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 15:52
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    1: "Most favoured nation" status under WTO rules (the default situation) means treating equally the tariffs charged on imported goods, e.g. charging the same tariff rate on all imports of oranges, without discriminating against any country. It does not regulate the quantity of those goods. All countries allow unlimited imports, and make money by taxing those imports.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 1:53
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    2: The UK can agree a free trade agreement with Dublin, with zero taxes, if the Republic was an independent state, which would allow abolition of customs checks. It could agree a free trade deal with the EU to the same effect. The WTO rules only apply where no bi-lateral deal exists.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 1:53
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    3: There are no WTO rules about customs checks. The WTO is an organisation which exists to promote trade, by removing unnecessary obstacles to trade. It doesn't exist to create such obstacles. After Brexit, the UK could drop all border controls for traded goods and services and it would be perfectly within its WTO rights.
    – Ed999
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 2:04

How could the UK resolve the Irish border conundrum without staying in the Single Market?

The EU commisioned a report by Lars Karlsson, a former Director of Swedish Customs.

Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons


This study, commissioned by the European Parliament's Policy Department for Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the AFCO Committee, provides background on cross-border movement and trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland and identifies international standards and best practices and technologies that can be used to avoid a `hard' border as well as case studies that provide insights into creating a smooth border experience. The technical solution provided is based on innovative approaches with a focus on cooperation, best practices and technology that is independent of any political agreements on the UK's exit from the EU and offers a template for future UK-EU border relationships.

(my emphasis)

However, the BBC reports

The Irish government has said ideas in a report about "smart borders" would not be enough to prevent a hard border after Brexit. ...

Some elements of his plan, including the use of cameras at unmanned crossing points, are contrary to the what the UK and Irish government have said should happen at the border.

So clearly there are differences in opinion concerning the feasibility of the Swedes' proposal.

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