Reunifying Ireland: An EU law perspective

On 23 June 2016, Northern Ireland was one of the two UK constituent nations that voted to remain in the EU. Following that, Sinn Féin has called for a referendum for the unification of Ireland and thus for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU. This discussion has intensified after the most recent Northern Ireland Assembly election where the Unionist vote was significantly reduced.

Independently of whether such development is politically prudent and/or feasible, one has to note that, legally speaking, ‘Westminster has formally conceded that Northern Ireland can secede from the United Kingdom to join a united Ireland, if its people, and the people of the Irish Republic, voting separately, agree to this.’ Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is a rare example of a provision of a constitutional statute that explicitly recognises the right of secession of a region (see also the Good Friday Agreement). According to Schedule 1 of the Northern Ireland Act, however, such a referendum can only be organised if ‘it appears likely to [the UK Secretary of State] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’ Theresa Villiers, the former Northern Ireland Secretary has made clear that, according to her, ‘there is nothing to indicate that there is majority support for a poll.’

Still, if in the future, the majority of the people in Northern Ireland democratically decide to secede from the UK and join the Republic of Ireland, the EU legal order is able to accommodate such political development. The secession of Northern Ireland will not mean the creation of a new (Member-)State. Instead, it will trigger the territorial expansion of an EU Member State to which EU law already applies in accordance with Article 52 TEU. In a way, the reunification of Ireland could follow the precedent of the German reunification where the application of the acquis was extended to East Germany without an amendment of the primary legislation. The difference is that, in the case of Germany, the EU acquis did not apply at all in the East before the reunification, something that is very different with the situation in Northern Ireland.

However, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has asked recently for a special provision in any Brexit deal to allow Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU should it be united with the Republic. He did so, notwithstanding the fact that a special deal for Northern Ireland is the declared goal of the UK government.

So, the question is how could such a provision look like?

Obviously, there are not many EU law provisions that regulate the (re)unification of (Member-)States. The closest example is Article 4 of Protocol No 10 on Cyprus of the Act of Accession 2003. Protocol No 10 provides the terms for the application of EU law in Cyprus given that the island had not been unified at the moment it joined the EU. In particular, it provides for the suspension of the application of the acquis in northern Cyprus, a suspension which shall be lifted in the event of a solution.

If such solution occurs in the future, Article 4 provides for a simplified procedure that enables the Union to accommodate the terms of the reunification plan. In particular, Article 4 allows the EU, by a unanimous Council Decision at a future date and in the event of reunification, to alter the terms of Cyprus’ EU accession that are contained in the Act of Accession 2003. In other words, it allows the Council to amend primary law (ie Act of Accession 2003) with a unanimous decision.

This might sound like a heresy. However, the Treaties foresee special procedures for their amendment in some cases. The best example, for the purposes of this post, is the Council decision on the basis of Article 2(2) of the 1994 Accession Treaty which adjusted the instruments of accession after Norway’s failure to ratify. Several Articles of this Accession Treaty and of the Act of Accession were amended by a Council decision while other provisions were declared to have lapsed. Thus, in that case, the Council, itself, amended primary law in a simplified procedure without any ratification of the Member States.

To the extent that the ‘Brexit’ Agreement will be considered as part of primary law, a similar provision regulating the reunification of Ireland could be included and could assist the smooth transitioning of Northern Ireland back to the EU. Of course, the question of the reunification of Ireland –as many other questions related to Brexit- is first and foremost political. It is important to point out, however, that EU law is flexible enough to accommodate such political developments.

Barnard & Peers: chapter 27

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