Boris Johnson says Brexit would leave arrangements on the Irish border “absolutely unchanged”. He noted that a free travel area between the two countries had existed for nearly 100 years, and hence predated EU membership. Eurosceptic Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has made similar comments.
In fact, Brexit would lead to an unprecedented situation on the Irish border, quite possibly leading to the end of passport-free travel.
Johnson’s argument has a major flaw. When the common travel area started in the 1920s, the EU didn’t exist. Both the UK and Ireland joined the EU on the same day, 1 January 1973. The Irish border has never separated an EU member from an EU non-member.
While it would not be logically impossible to keep such a free travel zone if the UK left, it would open up a large loophole. Ireland would still have to let in any EU passport holders, who could then just hop across the border without further checks.
Of course, the UK could still have a legal ban on EU citizens from working in the UK. That’s what the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, which are part of the common travel zone with the UK and Ireland but not in the EU, do. But this is a long way from the full control of borders which Brexiteers call for. It would also then be hard to stop people coming into the country to work, even if they were not entitled to. There are many illegal workers in the Isle of Man.
So, in practice, a post-Brexit UK would be faced with a choice between imposing passport checks at the Irish border or keeping free movement of people. It is hard to see how the latter is compatible with the stated aim of Johnson and other Brexiteers – to “recapture control of our borders”.
What’s true of Ireland might also be true of Scotland, if it secured independence from the UK after a Brexit. One of the reasons for pushing for Scottish independence would be to rejoin the EU. But if Scotland was in the EU and the rest of the UK wasn’t, there might have to be passport checks on the border between Scotland and England.
Edited by Hugo Dixon
Boris Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.