Boris Johnson recently tweeted a video of a baby making his first steps. He captioned it ‘Let’s get Brexit done’. Yet these baby steps post-Brexit may not be so pleasant. In fact, the UK government admits that they will not take place at all – at least not in October, as Johnson’s tweets promise. In the latest round of the judicial Brexit saga, this time before the Scottish courts, the UK government has pledged that it will respect the Benn Act and ask for an extension beyond October if a deal has not been achieved by 19 October.

The truth is that even if a Brexit extension is granted, it would be wrong to assume that no deal has been averted, rather than just postponed. It is clear by now that no agreement will be achieved unless either side agrees to step back from their red lines. It is equally clear that this step back is highly unlikely to take place. If a deal is ever to happen, both sides must understand that Brexit is like the Gordian knot; it cannot be untied, but only cut.

This rupture means that in the post-Brexit era there is no prospect of creating something less than a bipolar EU-third country relationship. Boris Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers understand this. The problem is that they place the epicentre of this bipolar relationship in Northern Ireland rather than in Great Britain itself, meaning England, Scotland and Wales.

So far, arrangements have been proposed on the assumption that post-Brexit, Northern Ireland will become a non-EU territory, like the rest of the UK. No one has explored how arrangements can be made while Northern Ireland is still EU territory. In order for this to happen, Brexit must implement the Denmark-Greenland paradigm – only in reverse.

In 1973, Greenland joined the EU as part of Denmark. Yet in 1982 Greenlanders decided to leave the Union out of fears that their fishery rights were compromised. Denmark filed a request for EU law not to apply to Greenland. The request was ultimately granted. Greenland remained part of the kingdom of Denmark, yet exited the EU.

If the necessity for no physical border on the island of Ireland means that the only solution is to adopt a single market between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, then it is time for both the UK government and the EU to consider applying the Greenland paradigm. Northern Ireland would stay in the EU, retaining its current status, and the rest of the UK would leave. Whereas in the case of Greenland, a territory of the Member State left the Union with the state itself remaining part of it, Brexit would see the opposite scenario where the state leaves the Union, yet part of its national territory remains subject to EU law.

So far, British politicians have been negative about the prospect of Northern Ireland retaining a different status. Quite rightly, they have viewed it as undermining the political and constitutional integrity of the UK. Indeed, Greenland, while officially still part of Denmark, has enjoyed a self-governing regime since 2009. British politicians would be reluctant to see the same happening in Northern Ireland. Yet its ties with the rest of the UK would arguably avert that scenario. As an EU territory and still part of the UK, Northern Ireland could even enjoy an economic boom, seeing enterprises which would want to benefit from the Single Market moving there. This would surely be preferable to capital and investment fleeing to other European capitals.

Applying the Greenland scenario to Brexit raises challenges. The EU will not welcome the possibility of having a country leave the Union yet still retain EU law in just a small part of its territory. The UK government would be equally sceptical, given that Scotland could follow suit and ask for similar treatment – despite the fact that any Northern Ireland EU law concessions would only happen in order to ensure that the UK leaves the EU rather than becoming further  entangled with it, as implementing EU law in Scotland would suggest. Still, the Greenland paradigm is the only way to break through the current Brexit impasse. It is time that leaders on both sides of the Channel started thinking about it.



  • This blog post appeared first on LSE Brexit.
  • The post gives the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
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Solon Solomon is a lecturer in the division of public and international law at Brunel University London School of Law.