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fifty shades of brexit

What's a 'hard' and 'soft' Brexit, and which one are we likely to get?

It’s been a year since the UK voted ‘Leave’ – so do we know yet what that means exactly?

Brexit negotiations press conference WIKTOR DABKOWSKI WIKTOR DABKOWSKI


Almost a year after 52% of the UK’s electorate voted to leave the EU, Britain’s negotiator David Davis and EU representative Michel Barnier sat down eye-to-eye to negotiate what that break-away could look like.

The talks will cover the topical issues that have been exhaustively debated since the vote – these include the free movement of people, regulations from every sector including food industries and medicines, and the possibility of a border in Northern Ireland.

The EU has previously that there are three specific issues they wish to focus on: EU citizens’ rights, the financial settlement that the UK must pay as part of leaving, and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

And if they don’t come to an agreement on everything, or if the UK House of Commons reject whatever deal Davis comes back with, there will be no deal at all.

“No deal is better than a bad deal,” as British Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly said.

But what is a bad deal? What’s a ‘hard’ Brexit? Does it really make much of a difference what kind of Brexit deal there is?

The options range from the ‘soft’ closely-integrated relationships like Norway and Switzerland have, meaning no tariffs, free movement, and contributions to the EU; to Canada’s trade deal, which means reduced tariffs; to Turkey, which is part of the customs union.

Outside of all of these would be the WTO or World Trade Orgaisation rules, which would mean Britain would have the same relationship with the EU as other countries. This would be the ‘hard’ Brexit that the ESRI predicts could cost the Irish exchequer up to €500 million within three years of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Britain Cabinet Frank Augstein / PA Images Frank Augstein / PA Images / PA Images


A ‘hard’ Brexit is an extreme break, where very few of the ties between the EU and UK would stay intact.

Here are some of the groups that the UK is a part of because of their EU membership, and will be reviewed as part of the Brexit negotiations:

  • The customs union – where taxes and regulations on trading goods is fixed if you’re an EU member
  • European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) - a nuclear research, training and safety programme
  • European Food Safety Authority – aims to give independent scientific advice on risks in the food chain
  • European Court of Justice – which ensures EU law is interpreted and applied the same in every EU country, and that countries abide by EU law
  • Horizon 2020 – aims to promote science, industrial leadership and solving societal challenges.

What’s between a ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit is more unclear – depending on how many EU groups and organisations the UK leaves, the ‘harder’ Britain’s separation will be.

Fianna Fáil’s Brexit spokesperson Stephen Donnelly says that there may be a ‘soft’ Brexit, or a complete reversal of the decision, depending on what direction Britain’s fractured politics takes in the next few months.

“Less people want a hard Brexit now when compared to immediately after the vote,” he told ”And that’s across all socioeconomic groups.

“What we need to do now, is to try and create the diplomatic space for a ['soft' deal like Norway's].”

All the UK voted for was a Brexit. They didn’t vote to leave the customs union or anything else.

Although a Norway-like deal is possible, it’s in doubt whether there’s political will in the EU to allow it.

When Michel Barnier addressed the Houses of the Oireachtas last month he said that there was “no reason” why Europe can’t maintain a strong relationship with the UK, but it’s clear the EU can’t give Britain everything they want which could prompt another of the 27 member states also leaving the EU.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has been trying to carefully tread the line between keeping on his European colleagues’ good-side, and criticising the EU system.

He’s taken repeated aim at the four freedoms of the EU – people, goods, services and capital – and maintained that they can be separated from one another, which contrasts with what the EU has been saying.

That rhetoric has prompted quick and strong responses from the most cool-headed of EU leaders to respond and defend the union by taking jabs at the British leadership.

But Mairead McGuinness, Vice President of the European Parliament, says the EU is not trying to make an example of the UK, but is “responding to a decision of the UK to leave the EU by setting out our agenda”.

Talk of ‘punishment’ or ‘revenge’ misrepresents the EU position. The EU’s position is based on accepting that the people of the UK voted to leave, and that this is the policy that the UK Government is pursuing.

“As Michel Barnier said in Monday’s press conference following the first day of negotiation, ‘Basically, we are implementing the decision taken by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, and unravel 43 years of patiently-built relations.’”

But will that decades-old patience run out?

“Part of this is just emotional,” Donnelly says. “If you’re listening to people like Nigel Farage, it’s a very understandable human reaction to go: ‘You got what you wanted, now off you go’. I hope that will calm down over time.”

A ‘soft’ touch

The deal that Ireland will be hoping for, is a ‘soft’ Brexit. This would be similar to the relationship Norway has with the EU:

  • Full membership of the single market
  • No tariffs
  • Free movement of people.

Norway pays €890 million a year for those memberships (up until 2020), and are outside the customs union, meaning they have their own trade deals with non-EU countries.

A similar deal with the UK would count as a ‘soft’ Brexit, but that would mean they would have to accept free movement of people, which doesn’t seem likely given the debate around how to reduce immigration in the UK.

McGuinness says that “the lines are more blurred” following the UK general election.

Although she says it’s impossible to define the Brexit that will emerge, she’s confident that the UK and EU will put the peace process and Northern Ireland first.

A new word is emerging of a ‘sensible’ Brexit, which would take account of the concerns of UK business, education and other interests as well as the interests of the EU.

“On all sides, there is a political commitment to avoiding a hard border and safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.”

Border controls

UK Chancellor Philip Hammond said on Tuesday that he wants a “frictionless customs arrangement”, and to “keep the land-border on the island of Ireland open and free-flowing”.

But Davis said on the first day of negotiations that they plan to leave the customs union, suggesting that Britain are looking for a new option somewhere in between.

“It’s too early to say, but it’s pretty bad news for us that they won’t stay in the customs union,” Donnelly says.

Being a member of the customs union means greater checks on goods that cross the border. Over time, that could easily tip into a hard border, he adds.

If we have to check goods in discreet warehouses on the side of the road, that sounds good.
But if we’re going to have to start checking IDs, checking passports, then there’s a queue, and behind the official is men and women with guns… then we’re back to a border.

Read: ‘It has taken more time today than anything else’: Ireland the hot topic on day 1 of Brexit talks

Read: Here’s what Ireland’s Brexit strategy for the next two years looks like

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