The UK government was accused on Thursday of tightening the land border on the island of Ireland – a key sensitivity in Brexit negotiations – as part of planned changes to UK immigration rules.

The new regulations would require non-Irish EU nationals to obtain an electronic visa waiver to travel from the Republic to Northern Ireland, thereby removing their right to free movement.

The requirement is contained in the Nationality and Borders Bill, the UK government’s sweeping rewrite of the immigration and asylum system, which is primarily aimed at tackling the thousands of illegal arrivals who have been crossing the Channel since France.

Legislation is in its final stages in the UK Parliament; it was passed by the House of Commons and should be approved by the Lords.

Under the new rules, all EU nationals – except citizens of the Republic of Ireland – who would previously have had free movement in Northern Ireland will need a visa waiver called a travel authorization electronic (ETA). The rules will also apply to non-EU citizens.

Although largely invisible, the land border is crossed by many people in neighboring communities several times a day. Some people living in the Republic have to cross it just to continue their journey south, and there are large multinational companies in Northern Ireland which employ non-Irish EU staff.

The removal of border controls, which was heavily militarized during three decades of sectarian conflict, was a cornerstone of the peace accord enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Accord.

The planned changes to immigration rules come amid strained relations between the UK and the EU following attempts by London to try to relax the application of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol. It is the part of the Brexit deal designed to protect the 1998 peace deal by addressing trade relations in Northern Ireland.

The protocol left Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods in order to prevent the return of a north-south trade border to the island of Ireland. But that does mean there are east-west customs controls on trade across the Irish Sea between mainland Britain and the region.

The UK has threatened to trigger the Article 16 process that rolls back post-Brexit deals for Northern Ireland, but has taken a step back as talks with Brussels continue.

The United States, which helped negotiate the 1998 peace deal, is also concerned about threats from the United Kingdom to trigger Section 16 and has consequently delayed an agreement to remove era tariffs. Trump on British steel and aluminum.

David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University in Belfast, said that while the British government complained about the protocol putting a border in the Irish Sea for goods, the new immigration bill would do the same applies to people crossing the land border.

“In the debate around the protocol, people see increased hardening around the east-west border without realizing that Northern Ireland is not part of the single market for services, capital or the movement of goods. people, ”Phinnemore said. “So you have a hardening of the north-south border as well as east-west. “

The UK government insisted that the new immigration rules would have no impact “regardless of the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”. He said the new ETA requirement would reduce “the burden on those who make frequent journeys, including those crossing the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

“My point of view is that it is not achievable,” Stephen Farry, a centrist Alliance MP in Northern Ireland, told Irish radio RTÉ.

“It’s not about land border controls – the UK government has been clear on this at least. But it creates that gray area because there is a very clear upcoming legal requirement that raises the question of how it is going to be enforced, ”he said.

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