The future of the Irish border erupted unexpectedly into Brexit talks this week, as the European Union made new demands on Britain that risk distracting from efforts to push negotiations to a breakthrough by year-end.

The EU circulated a document to a meeting of EU diplomats Wednesday that called for Northern Ireland to maintain the rules of the customs union and single market after Brexit. The EU calls for no hard frontier on the island, meaning that regulations have to be the same on each side of the line that will become the U.K.'s only land border with the EU after Brexit.


Ireland is aware that it essentially has veto power now, and once talks move on to trade it will be just one of 27 countries fighting to get its voice heard. It has been considering seeking explicit guarantees on the border as a condition for progress in talks.


What the EU is demanding is all but impossible for Britain, unless the whole U.K. stays in the customs union, which Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out. Allowing Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union would mean putting a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. That's unthinkable for the U.K., and more so at a time when the Conservative government is propped up by the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.

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