Special Status for the ROI in the EU?

In my post on whether Northern Ireland could stay in or have “special status” in the EU, I concluded that at the very least Northern Ireland does already have special status because everyone has the option of taking up an EU (Irish) passport. I’m now considering whether Brexit may also result in EU “special status” for the Republic.

To be clear, this is a think-piece, not a proposal.

I’m ruling out the Republic of Ireland actually leaving the EU, as its economy is heavily reliant on foreign direct investment, and that in turn is based on Ireland providing a gateway into the EU’s single market for non-EU multi-nationals. However, the agri-food sector—among others—is highly reliant on trade with the UK, and there is already plenty of talk of seeking a special deal for the Republic as part of the overall EU-UK deal.

The Republic is one of just three remaining EU member states with opt-outs, including an opt-out from the Schengen Agreement and opt-outs from the area of freedom, security and justice, as well as the “Irish protocol” (guarantees on security, defence, ethical issues and taxation) that followed the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.

It seems likely that the EU would prefer a situation where none of its members had opt-outs, and recent treaty changes—such as the obligation to eventually adopt the euro—underline this. As such, the EU’s default position is unfavourable to hybrid forms of membership.

But even if the EU and UK agree to preserve the Common Travel Arrangement (CTA) and the open border, it is hard to see how this could be implemented without any change in the Republic’s status within the EU. At the very least, any such deal would reinforce the Republic’s opt-out from the Schengen Agreement, which all of the other 26 members have signed up to. And the Republic likewise may have to secure new opt-outs in future, if further EU integration was to impinge on the UK-Ireland agreement.

In other words, any deal for Ireland won’t be a one-off, but it will be an issue to be renegotiated every time the EU makes major policy changes; just as the CTA had to be re-negotiated when the UK proposed immigration checks a few years ago.

The end result may be Northern Ireland staying closer to the EU than the rest of the UK—e.g. in areas related to agri-food—while the Republic may remain slightly removed from full EU integration—e.g. on Schengen.

This could involve Northern Ireland having to accept some checks on people or goods moving to Britain, while the EU might have to accept some checks between the Continent and the Republic of Ireland. In effect, we could have a “three-ply” border, rather than have all those checks occur at the land border.

There are hundreds of thousands of Irish-born living in the UK and UK-born living in the Republic. Existing family and business ties—not to mention shared language—may become more salient if the EU-UK deal looks like putting significant barriers between the Republic and the UK. Given the Republic’s initial rejection in referendums of the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, this might indicate public willingness for “associate membership” or some other EU special status, if that was the price of keeping an open border and the CTA.

Lecturer in Public Policy and Public Management at Ulster University. Researching economic inequality, public value creation, and societal wellbeing. On Twitter @natpolicy