EU leaders have agreed Northern Ireland will automatically become part of the European Union if its people vote to join a united Ireland in a future Border poll.
At a summit in Brussels which concluded shortly before 3pm (Irish time) on Saturday, the leaders of the 27 remaining EU states also unanimously approved guidelines for how the bloc will conduct its Brexit negotiations with the UK
European Council president Donald Tusk said the summit had approved the guidelines in less than a minute – a detail intended to emphasise the unity of the remaining EU-27 in advance of the negotiations with the UK.
“The most important thing to come out of today is the unity of the European Council,” European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said, while officials stressed that the summit had progressed as expected.
The declaration regarding Ireland paves the way for Northern Ireland to automatically become part of the EU if it ever wished to join the Republic in a United Ireland.
The declaration, known in Brussels as the “Kenny text”, says: “The European Council acknowledges that the Good Friday Agreement expressly provides for an agreed mechanism whereby a united Ireland may be brought about through peaceful and democratic means.
“In this regard, the European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union.”
The people of Northern Ireland now have a straight choice: to be part of a United Kingdom outside the EU or a United Ireland within the EU. I don’t expect the majority unionist community to opt for a United Ireland any time soon, but they at least now have a clear choice. And should Brexit turn out to be the disaster I expect, the balance of their political preferences may change somewhat in future years.
As head of the European Council – the highest decision-making body of the EU, made up the heads of governments of all members states – Mr Tusk has described the priorities of the EU side as being “people, money and Ireland”.
By this he meant that the first phase of the talks with the British must deal with the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK (and of British citizens resident in the EU), the size of the bill that Britain must pay for ongoing liabilities (EU programmes to which it has committed, pensions of British EU officials, etc) and the position of Northern Ireland and its Border with the Republic.
Only once these questions have been resolved will the EU begin discussions with the UK on the nature of their future relationship, which will include the shape of any trade deal.
The trade element of any future relationship is especially important to Ireland given its close economic ties with the UK, but also because any tariffs between the UK and the EU would have to be enforced on the Irish Border.
The degree of unanimity being displayed by the EU 27 has been quite remarkable, and must fill UK negotiators with foreboding. The full text of the EU27 negotiating guidelines is available here. They make no concession to the UK’s desire to commence trade negotiations in parallel with the withdrawal negotiations and emphasize that any such trade agreement can only be concluded once the UK is no longer a member of the EU.
Spain has a veto on any agreement that applies to Gibraltar and bilateral agreements between Cyprus and the UK (in relation to Sovereign Base areas) and Ireland and the UK will be recognised insofar as they are compatible with EU law. The transfer of EU agencies currently situated within the UK is asserted to be exclusively a matter for the EU 27 even though the UK had indicated it wanted to discuss their future within the context of the A50 negotiations.
The guidelines are also quite explicit that no Brexit deal can offer the same benefits as EU membership:
18. The European Council welcomes and shares the United Kingdom’s desire to establish a close partnership between the Union and the United Kingdom after its departure. While a relationship between the Union and a non Member State cannot offer the same benefits as Union membership, strong and constructive ties will remain in both sides’ interest and should encompass more than just trade.
Thus without drama or histrionics, the EU has set the scene for a very difficult set of negotiations for the UK.