The last month has seen a flurry of papers on Brexit from the UK and the EU. Largely, these papers are pretty prose rather than precise plans.

On 7 September, the European Commission's Brexit Task Force published a very short paper on Northern Ireland. Tellingly, it is just over three pages long. The European Commission does not want to show its hand or to set out an agenda just yet. Indeed, some commentators would say that the European Commission does not want to let the UK off the hook either.

This paper is not designed to set out answers. Instead, the paper does two things: (a) it puts the onus on the UK to find solutions; and (b) it sets out the European Commission's "guiding principles transmitted to EU27 for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland".

The EU stressed in its paper that the "onus to propose solutions which overcome the challenges created on the island of Ireland by the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union and its decision to leave the customs union and the internal market remains on the United Kingdom."

The EU also implicitly criticises the UK's earlier paper on the issue (which concentrated on customs issues) by saying that a "thorough understanding of the other issues beyond customs arrangements which are relevant to the border is also required in order to move forward to discussing solutions in the context of the dialogue with the United Kingdom." It passes the buck to the UK in no uncertain terms stating that it "is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to ensure that its approach to the challenges of the Irish border in the context of its withdrawal from the European Union takes into account and protects the very specific and interwoven political, economic, security, societal and agricultural context and frameworks on the island of Ireland."

The document then:

  • reiterates "the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland";
  • identifies that "issues unique to Ireland include the protection of the gains of the peace process and of the Good Friday Agreement ('Belfast Agreement')…in all its parts, the maintenance of existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between the United Kingdom and Ireland including the Common Travel Area, and specific issues arising from Ireland’s unique geographic situation, including the aim of avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The invisible border on the island of Ireland is one of the major achievements and societal benefits of the Peace Process. Border issues are broader than economic questions. The physical border itself was a symbol of division and conflict."

The principles set out by the Commission include:

  • the EU and the UK should continue to support peace, stability and reconciliation on the island of Ireland;
  • the continued operation of the Common Travel Area is fundamental to facilitating the interaction of people in Ireland and the UK while it also underpins the peace process and the provisions of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, in particular the citizenship and identity provisions, by facilitating the movement of people across the island of Ireland so the continuation of the Common Travel Area arrangements, "in conformity with European Union law", should be recognised.

The EU is open to criticism because of the skimpiness of the paper and the deliberate transfer of responsibility to the UK but it is all part of the on-going negotiations.

What does this mean for business? There is nothing specific in the paper. It is "apple pie and motherhood" as well as putting the onus on the UK to resolve matters. Perhaps it is dawning on everyone that the Barnier/Davies talks are not meant to appear successful – the deal (if there is one) will belong to the Presidents and Prime Ministers at some major summit eventually and what is happening now is "cover" for the Sherpas to work out the details with both sides staking out their positions. If you thought the paper would tell you much, you would be disappointed. It is simply too early in the process to reach, let alone publish, a solution. The uncertainty for business will continue.