Over the course of my 6-month journey through the UK, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Norway, France and Poland, I crossed a total of 26 borders, each one giving me a new insight into the way borders work and impact people’s lives. Never have borders been quite so important in my life as they are now, as my home country makes plans to leave the European Union.
And it’s not only me kept awake at night: it’s worrisome for the 4.7 million people in the Republic of Ireland and the 1.8 million in Northern Ireland, as well the 3.2 million EU citizens in Britain and the 1.2 million Brits living elsewhere in the EU. That’s nearly 11 million people who are directly affected by the border decisions being negotiated in Brussels right now, quite apart from the many millions who will be indirectly (and perhaps unwittingly) affected.
I don’t claim to have an answer for how the British-Irish border or the UK’s other borders should look after March 2019. I’m not sat in Brussels with insider knowledge into what cards the European Commission want to play in the Brexit negotiations, on which aspects they’ll stand firm and on which they’ll compromise. The EU institutions are fortunate to have the upper hand in this deal and they ultimately call the shots. If the EU demand a ‘hard’ Irish border with full customs checks, then the UK will struggle to do otherwise.
As it currently stands, citizens of Northern Ireland have the right to both a British passport and an Irish passport, giving them precious access to EU citizenship. As such, applications from Northern Ireland for Irish passports rose by 27% in 2016. With so much discussion about the 310-mile-long border, it’s not surprising that the Irish Republican party Sinn Féin see this re-bordering as an opportunity to call anew for the re-unification of Ireland. Sinn Féin’s re-unification agenda is gaining popularity in Northern Ireland and in the June 2017 election the party managed to increase their number of MPs from 4 to 7. They repeatedly call for a referendum on the reunification of Ireland and any further damage/downside to Northern Ireland could in theory see them gain yet more seats, and lead Northern Ireland down a path of independence from the UK, much like Scotland. The importance of the border arrangements and terms of Brexit cannot be understated and the very composition of the UK is potentially at stake if Northern Ireland and Scotland are not satisfied with the result.
This journey over the last 6 months has given me much food for thought on the unresolved issue of the British-Irish border. But beyond that, this journey has also introduced me to so many new people, new perspectives and new points of view. It has alerted me to the myriad different angles and issues that borders entail, beyond merely the number of minutes that I spend waiting, bored and impatient, in a queue at border control.
The issues at stake are far more important than just a queue, as I hope you will have gathered, from joining me on this whistle-stop tour of my 6 months of travel in Europe:
- It’s about free movement of people being an essential pre-requisite of the European Single Market;
- It’s about the immigration process complicating itself for mobile Europeans and preventing mobility of talent across the EU;
- It’s about the risk of no longer participating in pan-EU initiatives like Erasmus+;
- It’s about the potential for a new EU citizenship for Britons;
- It’s about attracting tourists but driving away highly-skilled EU workers, leaving a skills gap;
- It’s about a bilateral hi-tech ‘frictionless’ border in Ireland to minimise the impact on trade and individuals’ lives;
- It’s about the impact of de-bordering and re-bordering on borderland communities;
- It’s about xenophobic tensions, ‘Othering’ and weaker intercultural relations;
- It’s about the cost of trade tariffs and impact of customs checks, as well as the need for international responses to today’s globalised problems.
What stands out in your memory from the last border you crossed?
From all the borders you’ve crossed in the last 6 months?
Did the border crossing throw up any emotions?
Can you add any observations of your own to my list?
I’d love to hear your opinions, comments and thoughts on this issue of borders, both related to and unrelated to Brexit. Help me to fill in the gaps and let me know of any anecdotes or stories you have yourself.
If you’re interested in the stories behind my last 6 months of travel, then you can find plenty more of my travel writing on my blog:
 “Irish passport applications surge continues,” BBC News, last modified April 15, 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39609927.
 “Election results 2017: DUP and Sinn Féin celebrate election gains,” BBC News, last modified June 9, 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40208320.