The Good Friday agreement put to rest age-old conflicts in Ireland. It also offered hope that the reunification of Cyprus might be possible within the European Union. But lately, as Stavros Zenios writes, the “Green Line” that divides the easternmost island of the EU is viewed as a template for a soft border at the westernmost island of the Union after Brexit.
European nations can sure find better ways to resolve political questions than turning for answers to the last divided capital of Europe. The Green Line is a war zone, and I was once stopped by UN peacekeeping troops when I inadvertently rode my bicycle into the demilitarised buffer zone behind the University campus. It is hard to see the Green Line delivering what Northern Ireland needs.
Nevertheless, this template is being discussed. The UK Government position paper refers to Cyprus as an example. A working paper from the Brexit Policy Institute “points to the Cyprus model” for the “free movement of goods”. Nikos Scoutaris of the European University Institute suggests that the legal arrangements accommodating the Cyprus situation could offer some inspiration if Northern Ireland (and Scotland) wish to remain in the EU. On the other hand, Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, suggests that the solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland cannot “be based on a precedent”.
In this blog, I review the desideratum of Northern Ireland and the Green Line arrangements, and explain why these arrangements cannot work for Northern Ireland. I point out two significant asymmetries between the two islands. While the Cyprus experience has something to offer, it does not provide a template, nor should it.
The desideratum of Northern Ireland
The Prime Minister’s Article 50 letter articulates the UK position:
We must pay attention to the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is the only EU Member State with a land border with the United Kingdom. We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries […]
This deference to the status quo is most likely welcome by all actors. However, unilateral flexibility is insufficient. The border will be subject to EU regulations on the one side and UK regulations on the other. An agreed reciprocal arrangement is needed to ensure that the border is as seamless and frictionless as possible. That’s where the Green Line enters the discussion.
Green Line flexibility
While the Republic of Cyprus territory covers the whole island, the northern part is under Turkish military control since the events of 1974. When the country joined the EU in May 2004, the application of the acquis was suspended in the areas where the Government does not exercise effective control. The Green Line separating the north dates to the hostilities between the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities in 1964, when a British officer marked with a green pencil the cease-fire line through the capital city of Nicosia. With the advance of the Turkish army in August 1974, the line was extended 180Km from the west to the east coast, with a buffer zone patrolled by UN Blue Berets. The Green Line is not considered as an external border of the EU, and Council Regulation 866/2004 defines the terms under which provisions of EU laws apply to the movement of goods and persons. This is known as the Green Line regulation.
The Regulation adopts “special rules concerning the crossing of goods, services and persons, the prime responsibility for which belongs to the Republic of Cyprus. As these areas are temporarily outside the customs and fiscal territory of the Community and outside the area of freedom, justice and security, the special rules should secure an equivalent standard of protection of the security of the EU with regard to illegal immigration and threats to public order, and of its economic interests as far as the movement of goods is concerned. “The Government is required to “carry out checks on all persons crossing the line with the aim to combat illegal immigration”.
These excerpts present the hard side of the Regulation. There is a kinder, gentler, side that encourages trade between the north and the areas where the Government exercises effective control. Goods validated by the Turkish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce as originating at the north can cross freely the line. It is this flexible provision that inspires potential arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Regarding persons, EU citizens and third-country nationals who are legally residing in the northern part of Cyprus can cross the line. So does anybody who enters the island through the Government controlled areas. But what happens to those entering the northern part of the island through Turkey? The Regulation states that “while taking into account the legitimate concerns of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, it is necessary to enable EU citizens to exercise their rights of free movement within the EU and set the minimum rules for carrying out checks on persons at the line and to ensure the effective surveillance of it, in order to combat the illegal immigration as well as any threat to public security and public policy.”
This masterpiece wording of creative ambiguity. EU citizens who enter the island through the north can cross the Green Line by showing an ID card or passport. Third country nationals are, in general, denied entry. Why this distinction? EU residents can enter freely the island, and the fact that they may have arrived through Turkey is not used against them. Third country nationals need to obtain an appropriate visa and have it checked at a legitimate port of entry. The Government does not wish to relegate control of its borders at Green Line crossing points.
The Regulation asks “the Commission shall report to the Council on an annual basis […] on the implementation of the Regulation and the situation resulting from its application”. From these reports, we can monitor the experience over the last 14 years (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Illegal immigration and smuggling across the Green Line, and the crossing of persons across the Green Line and the Ireland-North Ireland border.