When the United Kingdom exits the European Union, the four freedoms that currently exist will be no more. The free movement of goods, services, capital and people will probably be gone, and more restrictions will be placed on their movements across borders. The free movement of people is the primary reason that many people voted to leave the European Union in the first place.
With mainland Britain, it is relatively easy to be restrictive with what comes in and out of the country as there are no borders with another country so anything or anyone coming in or out is funnelled through a specific location – airport, port or station. In Northern Ireland however, which obviously will exit the EU, the situation is slightly more problematic as the country shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland stretching over 300 miles (or 500 kilometres depending on what side of the border you are on).
There are now many different possibilities for what could happen to this border in a post-Brexit world, and these range from the status quo with people free to cross without any restriction, to a hard border with checkpoints at all the crossings, although building a wall might be a little bit extreme. With the former, this undermines the whole point of Brexit which was to end the free movement of people between the EU and the UK, and so prevent too many people from entering the UK. With the latter, it will undermine the peace process brought about by the Good Friday Agreement that sought to remove border infrastructure and checkpoints that were symbolic of threat of violence that existed during The Troubles.
A middle option that has been suggested is a soft border between the north and the south, but a hard sea border. This would effectively keep Northern Ireland within the EU, but out of the UK, so is not likely to be a preferred option for any Unionists who will see this as a stepping stone toward reunification with the south.
A hard border between the north and the south may not be an issue for big businesses who I'm sure will find an adequate solution regardless of the outcome. The issue will mostly be with the small businesses situated near the border that rely on trade with the other side of the border – a local market in which the border, for now, is an irrelevance. Figures suggested that 80% of trade across the Irish border is carried out between SMEs.
Organizations on both sides of the border need to consider how the different options would affect them and then consider what measures they could put in place to lessen the impact. Organizations need to monitor the negotiations closely to see how the potential for disruption is developing to ensure that they are ready to face any challenges that come their way.
Of course it is also worth noting that this is not just an issue for the Irish border, it will also become an issue at the border between Spain and Gibraltar where people routinely cross on a daily to trade or work on the other side of the border. Arguably it will be more problematic in this situation as tensions are slightly greater between the two countries on either side of the border.
So what steps has your organization taken to prepare itself for Brexit?
Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.
Executive Director of the Business Continuity Institute.