ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Theresa May, the United Kingdom's new prime minister, went to Northern Ireland today to calm fears about Brexit. Much of the concern there focuses on the open border that divides Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. People want to know what will happen when it becomes the only land border between the U.K. and the European Union. As a reminder, the Irish Republic is a member of the EU and it plans to stay that way. NPR's Frank Langfitt hit the road recently to learn more.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm in a rental car and I'm driving from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland. And I'm about across an international border, but there's no sign of it. It's mostly just rolling hills and cows. You would get a better sense, say, going from New York state into Pennsylvania. The only way you know is that as you cross the border, the speed limit changes from miles to kilometers.
IAN TALBOT: We have an economy in Ireland of 4.6 million people that trade and travel across that border day in, day out with 1.6 million people in the north.
LANGFITT: And that travel, as Ian Talbot explains, has been completely unfettered for years. Talbot runs Chambers Ireland, an umbrella group of chambers of commerce across the island. He says the open border has been great for business, but there's a problem.
TALBOT: We're the only, really, land border between the U.K. and the rest of Europe.
LANGFITT: Which means that once the U.K. leaves the EU, which allows the free flow of people and goods, there could be pressure to strengthen the border, which right now is largely invisible. Steve Coulter is a fellow focusing on the political economy of Europe at the London School of Economics. He spoke over Skype.
STEVE COULTER: Given that immigration is such a concern, there will probably be a return to actual checkpoints, possibly even a fence, which will greatly inhibit trade. It's going to be extremely difficult to see how trade can continue in its present form between the U.K. and Ireland.
LANGFITT: Many U.K. citizens voted to leave the EU because they want to limit immigration. Declan McChesney worries U.K. officials may feel the need to monitor people crossing the border to prevent migrants from using it as a back door into the United Kingdom. McChesney runs Cahill Brothers, a women's shoe shop in the city of Newry just north of the border.
DECLAN MCCHESNEY: If the refugees come through there and there is no way to stop them, then the U.K. will have to protect its border somehow. So the only thing they can do is put a hard border on that easy route that you came through this morning.
LANGFITT: Today, Prime Minister Theresa May met with the leaders of Northern Ireland in Belfast and tried to address the worries of people like McChesney.
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THERESA MAY: Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past. What we do want to do is to find a way through this that is going work, deliver a practical solution for everybody, and that we come out of this with a deal which is in the best interests of the whole of the United Kingdom.
DARA MURPHY: Well, I don't think it's in anybody's interest that there would be a hard border as such.
LANGFITT: Dara Murphy is Ireland's minister overseeing European affairs. He says Ireland, which has strong economic ties with the U.K., is not looking to disrupt trade. And, Murphy adds, there are ways to monitor transit without major disruption.
MURPHY: The reality with respect to customs and tariffs, if they are to come in due course - much of this can take place electronically.
LANGFITT: He and Talbot of Chambers Ireland says people are already looking for solutions.
TALBOT: So for example, we could have - goods and services and people with the right card, technology, whatever it needs to be, can move that through interruption. Some sort of a digital passport. And with ever-evolving technology around GPS solutions - for example, mapping - I think all these things are possible.
LANGFITT: And, Talbot points out, there is time to solve these problems. The U.K. hasn't even started the formal process to leave the European Union, which could take years. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Belfast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.