EU could allow Northern Ireland to rejoin if unified with the republic

Donald Tusk
President of the European Council Donald Tusk has said that Irish reunification needs to be discussed before Brexit negotiations begin. Przemek Wierzchowski/Agencja Gazeta via Reuters

If Northern Ireland separated from the United Kingdom and reunified with the Irish Republic after centuries of bitter political and religious divisions, the EU could welcome the new unified state as a member.

A draft of Brexit negotiating positions set for approval by the 27-nation bloc Saturday seen by The Guardian says "the European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law" a unified Ireland would become "part of the European Union."

The draft is set for approval at the meeting where EU leaders will hash out the union's final bargaining positions for chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who will lead the bloc's side of the two-year-long divorce proceedings.

But in a letter to the 27 remaining EU nations Friday, President of the European Council Donald Tusk wrote that the EU "will not discuss our future relations" between the bloc and United Kingdom until key issues such as the Ireland question see "sufficient progress" before the haggling starts.

Other contentious issues include the treatment of EU and British citizens living across borders and the remaining payments to the union from the United Kingdom to move U.K.-based EU agencies to the continent—several EU officials have said that the U.K. must deal with these before official negotiations finally launch.

Read more: Merkel warns that after Brexit U.K. will have third-country status and rights

"Without progress on the many open questions of the exit, including the financial questions, it makes no sense to have parallel negotiations over the future relationship," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday. The cost of the bill the EU will hand Britain is estimated to run to 60 billion euros ($65 billion).

"If you're saying that they want the money before they get any substantive talks, then that is obviously not going to happen," Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC on Friday.

Yet getting the mention of Irish reunification into the debate marks a victory for the Republic of Ireland's leader Taoiseach Enda Kenny. In February, Kenny called for the terms of the Good Friday agreement, which allows for a referendum to reunite Ireland, to be included in Brexit negotiations. The 1998 agreement's terms was a huge step in a drawn-out peace process, and set out terms for the governance of Northern Ireland.

The Republic Kenny leads is an EU member and not part of the United Kingdom, meaning that if Britain exits in its current form, there will be need for negotiations over the form the border between the two will take. Prior to the Good Friday agreement there were checkpoints manned by British security forces. What the border looks like after Brexit will depend on the outcome of negotiations.

Although Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by a 56 percent majority during the Brexit referendum last June, not as many people there are ready to reunify with the Republic. A BBC poll last September indicated that 63 percent of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the UK and just 22 percent would vote for a united Ireland.

If Northern Ireland were to decide to join, however, the EU's inclusion of the Good Friday provisions would allow reunification in the same way as the merging of East and West Germany in 1990.

After the EU's negotiating guidelines are approved on Saturday, the European Commission will prepare them in a clear mandate so they can be deployed after the Britain forms a new government following its snap general election June 8.