I believe I know the Brexit issue pretty well. However, I haven't been closely following it since Boris became PM (but still followed it somewhat). What I don't understand is this:

[...] what we can't have is the EU seeking to erect a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.

These are the words of the UK's foreign minister reported by BBC. Now, it is my understanding that

  1. you either have a border between NI and the mainland UK or a border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member (because the EU can't allow the UK to make an effective breach in their customs border);

  2. the UK voluntarily agreed to the former option as part of an agreement with the EU.

How is the EU erecting anything if they agreed to it themselves without having a gun pointed to their head? And what is the UK's alternative proposal other than setting up a hard border on Ireland which many fear could reignite the Troubles?

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    This is a soapbox question. The final paragraph gives it away. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 11:59
  • @Venture2099 Since I hadn't been following it for months, I didn't rule out that I missed some piece of context Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 14:05
  • I voted to remain; I am an ardent supporter of the EU but I also reject that the EU is not "erecting" anything. There is delivery by intent and also delivery by omission. The truth is; the EU border, as required by it's customs standards for single market access are not the concern of the United Kingdom and neither should they be. If the EU wish to impose a border on the physical landmass of Ireland in order to protect their Union then that is a discussion that needs to be open, transparent and not inferred or hinted at by omission. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 13:00
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    It is nothing to do with the United Kingdom and its relationship with Northern Ireland which imposes no such border between UK member states. So I voted to close this question because it was soapboxing and also had a pre-formed opinion about what is happening; the question was framed as pro-EU, anti-UK. I doubt OP is willing to accept a UK-centric viewpoint even if it had it's basis in legal, historical or legislative fact. Which it may or may not. Commented Sep 25, 2020 at 13:00

6 Answers 6


Simplified, one key issue that drove or drives the Brexit movement is for the UK to have full sovereign control over the standards goods must adhere to.

Equally simplified, one key issue for the EU is what is known as the integrity of the internal market, i.e. that goods all across the EU adhere to the same sets of standards that were agreed upon by Parliament, Council and Commission—a.k.a. representatives of the people of the member states, the governments of the member states, and a kind of ‘expert committee’ nominally independent of the member states.

This would not be a problem if it were not for the history of the island of Ireland, especially the six counties in the northeastern corner usually known as Northern Ireland. Parts of the population see themselves as British and wish to stay part of the United Kingdom while other parts of the population see themselves as Irish and wish to be close to or unified with the Republic of Ireland. One poll conducted in February this year found just over one third of the population identifying as Irish and another third as British; one quarter said they were Unionist and one quarter said they were Nationalist.
This conflict is almost impossible to solve, but the peace agreement currently in force has done a good job of preventing further violence that was prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century. Although a commitment to a fully open border is not literally part of this agreement, the current open border and the agreement are often mentioned hand in hand (e.g. by the Irish Prime Minister) which led to the public often associating the open border primarily with this agreement.

There is one more party whose wants we need to consider: the Republic of Ireland. It joined the EU (then EC) together with the UK in 1973 but it does not intend to leave the EU now or any time soon. In fact, as it uses the common currency it is more integrated into the EU than the UK ever was. It most likely sees significant benefits in remaining part of the EU, especially the Common Market. In addition, it has regularly repeated its commitment to keeping the border as open as possible.

Thus, from an EU point of view, the Common Market must include the Republic of Ireland. But also, there needs to be a fully open border between the UK territory of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which is part of the EU. On the other hand barring agreements that the UK has indicated it is not willing to make, there cannot be an equally open border between the EU and the UK as a whole.

From a UK point of view, their internal market (between England, Scotland, Wales and critically Northern Ireland) must also remain open. The UK also wishes to uphold the peace process which in the minds of many requires the open border across the island of Ireland. Finally, they have clearly indicated that they do not wish to engage in a Monaco, Norway or Switzerland-like model with a fully open border to the EU as this violates the sovereign control mentioned at the very top of this answer.

Putting all together, there must be a customs border between the UK and the EU somewhere. This could be:

  • between Great Britain and the island of Ireland (ideal in the eyes of Ireland and the EU, unacceptable for the UK)
  • between the UK and the Republic of Ireland (absolutely unacceptable for the Republic of Ireland; not desired by any other party)
  • between the mainland and the British Isles (unacceptable for the EU and the Republic of Ireland, possibly ideal in the eyes of the UK)

None of these solutions are good. Each violate a core idea (national sovereignty, the EU integrity or an international agreement). ‘Technical solutions’ have been used for years as a way to solve the problem but to the best of my knowledge no convincing idea of such a technical solution has been proposed. Until I see a working suggestion for these ‘technical solutions’, I consider them hot air.

Such are the facts. The rest is opinions. The UK, especially its current Prime Minister has voiced the opinion that the EU be forcing a customs border across the Irish sea. The EU might reply that the outcome of the Brexit vote and subsequent agreement are forcing the EU to suggest this model as it may be the only one possible. It might also argue that essentially the UK is forcing negotiations into that direction as they refuse to make other concessions that would facilitate a different solution. The UK might reply that it is merely following the result of a referendum.

These opinions can be written either way and amount to nothing more than shifting the blame to the other side. Importantly though, all parties can claim whatever they want but ultimately analysts and historians a decade down the line will assign blame if it is to be assigned.

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    Actually it has factual errors and ignores several key facts. 1. The relevant issue for British voting to leave the EU is to control movement of people not goods. EU membership requires both or neither. 2. The will and desires of the people of NI and ROI are secondary to the legal agreement called the "Good Friday Agreement" signed into British Law in 1998. Renaging on this agreement would reignite violence in the region. 3. "six counties... known as Ulster, Northern Ireland" - Ulster has 9 counties. It is not a synonym for Northern Ireland.
    – Colm
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 10:42
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    the remaining EU states. Thus, the RoI–NI border can be completely open to people (no ID checks) before and after Brexit as long as both sides want it (they do). While EU citizens would be granted all Freedom of Movement rights in the RoI, they would not in the UK, which would be exactly as desired. Therefore, nothing about the movement of people is inhibitory when it comes to the issues the question asks about. 2. The legal agreement GFA has been signed by the UK, the RoI and various parties in NI, and it has been ratified (in your words: ‘signed into law’) by both the RoI and the UK. …
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 11:17
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    I have tried to briefly outline why it is important and why no party is openly trying to break it. However, I have also heard voices from the UK that suggest ‘solutions’ in violation of the GFA. That is why I chose to write absolutely unacceptable for the RoI without mentioning the UK as it seems that there is a less universal acceptance of the terms of the GFA in the UK.
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 11:20
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    The only other point to maybe add here was that there seemed to be wilful ignorance about the points noted her in relation to Northern Ireland on behalf of the conservative government when it came to negotiating the brexit agreement. Even after years of negotiation where this was one of the main sticking points, to be now expressing surprise at the possibility of a sea border when this was an obvious outcome of the agreement would indicate either extreme ignorance or a desperate political ploy for it not to be 'their fault' in the eyes of history.
    – Paddy
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 11:38
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    @Criggie Who would that satisfy? In Northern Ireland, not the Loyalists that want to remain part of the UK, nor the Republicans that want to to be part of a united Republic. Neither the rest of the UK which would then cease to be the United Kingdom and would revert to being Great Britain, and risk further break-up by an emboldened Scottish or Welsh independence. I don't know what the feeling would be in the ROI but I don't think what the rest of the EU think is relevant in such a matter.
    – Andy Hames
    Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 12:13

From the EU27 viewpoint, the Brexiteers promised a unicorn and now expect the EU27 to deliver this impossible creature. The EU27 always said that it can't be done without breaking something, and that it won't be the EU internal market which breaks.

  • The EU27 want to have an open internal market, notably between the ROI and the mainland EU.
  • The UK want to have an open internal market, notably between NI and England/Scotland/Wales.
  • The ROI and NI should have no hard border, and there should be good economic integration.
  • The UK and the EU27 will have separate internal markets after Brexit unless current and future regulations are the same.

From the Brexiteer viewpoint, the problems can be solved with a little bit of technology (online tracking of freight) and goodwill on both sides, and it is the EU27 being difficult on purpose to frustrate the Brexiteer goals. UK safety standards would remain high, they say, even if they differ in details, and there would not be smuggling on an industrial scale from England via Ireland to the mainland EU.

  • Can the UK theoretically strong-arm the Republic of Ireland into agreeing to establish a customs border with the EU ("if you don't, we'll give you a hard border across the island")? Commented Sep 17, 2020 at 19:07
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    @SergeyZolotarev If you mean a customs border between the ROI and the EU, that would effectively end EU membership for the ROI and does not seem likely.
    – TAR86
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 5:39
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    For those interested, here's a video by CGP Grey which discusses this
    – Jivan Pal
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 17:28
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    Please note that Politics Stack Exchange is not a platform for political debates. I therefore had to delete a lot of comments. Please familiarize yourself with how comments should and should not be used on this website.
    – Philipp
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 8:44

Let's just start with your title question:

Why is the UK blaming the EU

Boris Johnson and every Brexiteer have a choice: blame themselves or blame the EU. They're not going to ever accept any blame themselves, so they will blame the EU for anything they think is unpopular.

Cynical politicians will not be the ones to stand up and say "My Fault !".

So expect more of the same.

One problem here is that UK voters seem to pay no attention at all to what is actually said by the EU. Their news is mostly fed via sources "they trust" - i.e. they choose sources that confirm their biases. Instead, people describe anything they don't already believe as "biased".

So in this climate ("us" and "them") in the UK, there's no checks and no balances to blaming the "them" and in this case that's the EU.

The EU, while exasperated by all this, has been planning with the expectation the UK would be daft enough to go for a no deal Brexit for a long time. My impression is that EU negotiators have regarded the UK as not engaging in negotiations for a long time.

and what does the UK want ?

To eat the cake while still having the cake.

The UK "position" has always been that they should have free access to EU markets without having to obey the same rules as every other business in the EU ("the level playing field" concept), rules other non-EU countries in trade agreements with the EU also have to obey.

It's the EU's marketplace - their pitch, their rules. Seems reasonable to me.

The UK present a level playing as "no rules for the UK", which of course is completely unacceptable to anyone in the EU, which is why the EU is in the rare position of being 100% united on its position on Brexit.

There never was (from the referendum on) any single unified UK position on what the UK actually wants from Brexit. There was no (realistic) plan, there is no plan and it seems quite like that when the UK "drives off the cliff edge" at the end of the year 2020, there will still be no plan.

What the UK wants is everything it had inside the EU without being subject to the rules that define that market.

No one will ever get that - it would be absurd for the EU to grant that wish.

And now that quote from the UK's foreign minister:

what we can't have is the EU seeking to erect a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain

This is what the UK agreed to under international law.

It was not hidden in the text, in the small print (and even if it was, the UK helped write that text and has a lot of lawyers for reading small print). They were not duped, tricked or pressured. They wrote it. It was, in fact, the single most important aspect that allowed a withdrawal agreement to be agreed.

They now have an international agreement they want to get out of.

What happens when you do that? No one trusts you.

Japan won't ratify the proposed trade deal it has (which is very favorable to Japan) until after Brexit is complete. Why? They want to see if the UK will stick to its agreements. How likely is it that the Japanese will ratify a deal with a country that (if things continue as they are) will have broken another international deal with a trading partner (the EU) that is orders of magnitude more important to them than the UK?

Not very, I think.

The US (even the Republican party with Trump at the helm !) has already made it clear that breaking international law is a non-starter and will make a trade deal with the US "problematic". (And if Brexiteers think the EU is unfair, wait until you see US trade terms.)

Risking stability and peace in Northern Ireland for that is staggeringly irresponsible, but it's apparently what the UK government is willing to do. The other thing being risked is that the UK will become something of a pariah if it violates international agreements.

The UK wants everything and will never get it. That is the nub of the problem.

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    @JBentley I do not intend to insert an artificial impression of balance where there is none. The Canada arrangement (which the UK never actually proposed formally to the EU) could not be said to balance anything, and IIRC was rejected by the UK Parliament when it failed to agree any of a wide range of possible arrangements during a series of votes. If the UK cannot agree it's own approach there is no way to balance that lack of agreement in the EU which has a unified position. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 9:34
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    @JBentley We clearly are not going to agree. However you've claimed I'm stating things that are false and I'm not. The EU cannot be said to have outright rejected something that was never formally proposed to it. The Canada-style deal is explained in this BBC article and is neither comprehensive enough for an EU-UK scenario nor does it satisfy the UK's refusal to accept EU standards and laws when selling in the EU. It's the having your cake and eat it problem again. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 10:19
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    @JBentley Barnier's actual statement was "We have proposed a trade agreement with a country that has a very particular and unique close geographical proximity not like Canada, not like South Korea and not like Japan,” Barnier said. “Very particular. We are ready to propose and work very quickly with Britain on the basis of the political declaration, which was agreed with Boris Johnson. We stand ready to propose this agreement, if the UK wants it". In other words the UK suddenly demanded the EU propose such a deal (the UK should do it themselves) against it's explicitly agreed approach. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 11:20
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    @JBentley I have already addressed all your points in detail. The result is not what you want - not my problem. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 13:33
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    @JBentley Your point itself is incorrect - the EU may pick and choose which rules it proposes for any particular agreement, but THOSE rules must be obeyed. The answer above is one of the least biased I have read. An "orderly Brexit" always was, and still is, fundamentally a unicorn.
    – MikeB
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 9:21

Just to add to "what the UK wants" ... it is a stretch to say the UK is united in this : "what the UK wants" is what a very small majority wanted before it got messy, or in practice, what quite a large majority in England wants.

A little historical context : The EU referendum came hard on the heels of another referendum, (September 2014) in which the UK government vowed to do everything it could to get and keep Scotland out of the EU if Scotland voted for independence : and thus the only way to remain IN the EU was to vote NO to independence.

So Scotland duly voted NO to independence ... granted I can't put a figure on how much of the modest "NO" majority was because of the EU ... but then voted heavily in favour of remaining in the EU (about 63% to 38%) - as did N. Ireland (though less heavily).

Now the breaking of that 2014 promise as a result of the 2016 referendum imposes further internal stresses in the UK and Scotland desires a second IndyRef. "The UK" is officially opposed to this under the current government, but at some point in the future, and with or without UK permission, it is likely to happen, and current polling suggests, with a different result.

How this will all play out is anybody's guess, but in one feasible scenario additional to Jan's excellent answer, Scotland rejoins the EU, allowing a border free region involving NI and the EU (inc. ROI, Scotland) with controls at the Scottish border and between NI and English seaports.

In this scenario, NI may either opt to unite with the ROI to rejoin the EU, or remain in the "UK" under a similarly bizarre agreement.

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    "what the UK wants" is what a very small majority wanted", actually even that is not accurate, because the referendum was solely about whether to remain in the EU or leave it. There was never a vote on the mechanics of leaving, and it's vanishingly unlikely the 52% who voted leave all have the same idea of "what the UK wants" in terms of the trade deal. It's why parliament was unable to reach consensus on just about anything EU-related under May's government: even pro-leave MPs couldn't agree on what leaving should mean.
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 10:40
  • @JBentley very much so, that's what my "before it got messy" alludes to. Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 11:02

The following chart shows the various different levels of membership/alignment with the EU, along with the reasons the UK government has given for them being unacceptable (source).

EU/UK future relationship chart

This chart was presented by Michel Barnier back in 2017 and the EU position has not changed since. Some details about what a Canada-style agreement would entail are covered here.

Essentially this would remove some tariffs and raise quotas but it would require some form of border checks between the EU and UK. In practice this means a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The UK government has said that instead of a hard border a technological solution could be used, however they have not provided any details of what such a solution would involve and there is speculation as to whether or not the required technology has been invented yet. If no technological solution can be found they will have to revert to a hard border.

So essentially the EU has given the UK a breakdown of the different relationships available but the UK government has rejected them all. The UK government wants the benefits of trading with the EU but refuses to accept any of the conditions required to make that possible. The UK is therefore trying to save face by blaming the EU for not giving them special treatment, despite the fact that the EU position has not changed since day one and the UK has never had a clear position of its own. Note that the UK has historically enjoyed a high representation in the EU and had a significant hand in producing the rules that they are now trying to change to their own benefit and to the EU's detriment.


As a similitude to a game of chess, it's very general pawn protection angst from the UKgov. As in chess, there are millions of possible outcomes, and the UK wants to go backwards on the chess game, because it's the first time that they play the Brexit rules, which are rather strange and unpredictable.

The UKgov wants to strengthen it's negotiation position because the EUgov has a stronger negotiating position through strength of numbers.

The UKgov has agreed that it does not trust the EUgov to play nicely after Brexit, on the subject of the N.I. pawn, and has decided to move the position of the N.I. pawn.

There is a deep mistrust in between the UKgov and the EUgov and it is entirely real and well justified because there are billions of dollars of commodities and of lobbying money at stake for both parties of politicians.

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    "the Brexit rules, which are rather strange and unpredictable" - citation needed for that - those with even a modicum of sense could see that this process was not going to be easy. Just like any divorce - if you go to court and ask for 51% you may well get it; but ask for 110% and you certainly won't, and that is what Westminster is doing. (Not the UK as a whole.)
    – MikeB
    Commented Sep 19, 2020 at 9:26
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    @aliential It's not a myth. Liam Fox Easiest Deal in History, Gove We hold all the card, Davis Only considerable upsides
    – Jontia
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 9:08
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    and the rest is on record
    – Jontia
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 9:08
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    @aliential If Liam Fox isn't relevant, why didn't you say so when you replied to Jontia's comment? Your reply certainly made it seem like you consider him relevant. Besides, he was secretary of state for international trade from July 2016 to July 2019. To quote wikipedia: "Fox was appointed Secretary of State for International Trade, responsible for helping to secure trade deals with other countries following Brexit." So the man responsible for securing a trade deal with the EU said it would be the "easiest deal in history" (direct quote). You're grasping at straws.
    – JS Lavertu
    Commented Sep 23, 2020 at 14:32
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    I can assure you, @aliential, that people reading European political news will have known Juncker at least since the 2007/8 financial crisis due to his position as head of the Eurogroup. In addition to that, he was lead candidate of the EPP in the election after which he became President of the Commission – entirely the way one would expect this to proceed. His history is really much closer to a sitting Illinois Senator winning the primaries and election to become President of the United States.
    – Jan
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 11:17

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