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Why A New EU Draft Of How Brexit Should Work Is Complicating Matters


Today in Brussels, the European Union published its draft of how Brexit should work out, and it's not quite what politicians in London say they had envisioned. The biggest issue is shaping up to be the U.K.-Irish border. There are questions about trade and movement of people across that border after the U.K. leaves the EU. NPR's Lauren Frayer is in London following this story. Hi, Lauren.


SHAPIRO: For people not up on their geography, we're talking about one island that includes Northern Ireland, a country that's part of the U.K., and also Ireland, a separate country that is not. What does that border look like today?

FRAYER: So right now, the border is completely open. So roads pass between the two countries. The only real difference is road signs are in miles on the British side, kilometers on the Irish side. Everyone on both sides of that border wants this system to continue, but Brexit poses a dilemma because when Northern Ireland leaves the European Union with the rest of Britain, its border with Ireland becomes an external EU border. And you typically have customs checks on frontiers like that.

SHAPIRO: What was the EU proposal, and why did it upset leaders in London?

FRAYER: So the EU today published a 120-page draft document - terms of its divorce with Britain. This document is up for negotiation. It's sort of a fallback plan if no other agreement is reached. And in there, it's said that in order to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the North may have to stay in the EU customs union even after the rest of the U.K. leaves. Again, that's so that there is no trade differences on the different sides of that border. But it means that part of the U.K., Northern Ireland, would not have a full Brexit with the rest of the country.

SHAPIRO: Many listeners will remember that there has been a history of violence in Northern Ireland over the question of this border. There is a peace, but it's a tenuous peace. It sounds like the EU is now getting itself involved in this debate.

FRAYER: Right. So any time you talk about the status of that border, it's very, very sensitive. I mean, this was always going to be an issue, and they haven't really ironed out what the conditions would be like on that border. I mean, the EU's chief negotiator said today, look, this is what we have been talking about - EU-British officials - have been discussing in meetings over the past year and a half. And yet, the reaction today among British officials was horror.

SHAPIRO: So what has the line been from them?

FRAYER: So in Parliament today, there was a pretty rowdy debate over this.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: The draft legal text the commission have published would, if implemented, undermine the U.K. common market and threaten constitution integrity of the U.K. by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea. And no U.K. prime minister could ever agree to it.

FRAYER: That's Prime Minister Theresa May in Parliament today. You hear cheers and yelling. She's in a very sticky situation because she insists that all of the U.K., including Northern Ireland, a British-ruled territory, will leave the European Union and all of its institutions, including the customs union. It's pretty hard to make that happen without creating this messy situation on the U.K.-Irish border. And to complicate things, May's government is already very weak, and she relies on support from a hard-line Unionist Party in Northern Ireland in order to stay in power in London. Now, if that party doesn't get what it wants in this situation on the border, it could topple May's whole government.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thanks a lot, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS CANDY'S "ETHERIC DEVICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.