BRUSSELS - European Union leaders at a Brexit summit on Saturday will give a formal undertaking to embrace the British province of Northern Ireland in the EU if a referendum unites the island, diplomats said on Friday.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has asked fellow members of the bloc to acknowledge that Northern Ireland would, like East Germany in 1990, automatically enter the EU in the event of unification with existing member state, the Irish Republic.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement to end violence in the north foresees the holding of referendums on both sides of the Irish border on uniting the island if London and Dublin see public support for such a change.
EU leaders, who will be meeting in Brussels to endorse a negotiating plan for Britain's withdrawal, will give a political endorsement to what Irish and EU legal experts say is the position in international law of such territorial changes.
"The European Council acknowledges that the Good Friday Agreement expressly provides for an agreed mechanism whereby a united Ireland may be brought about through peaceful and democratic means," diplomats quoted their draft text as saying.
"The European Council acknowledges that, in accordance with international law, the entire territory of such a united Ireland would thus be part of the European Union."
One EU source said the text, to be entered into the formal minutes of the meeting, was a statement of "the obvious" and, along with Irish officials, he stressed the summit was not taking a view on unification or launching any talks on unity.
"Irish unity is not part of the Brexit negotiations but given the importance of the Good Friday Agreement it will be suitable for that to be acknowledged by the European Council," a senior Irish official in Brussels said.
"This is not about starting a process but it is important that there be clear acknowledgment that this is the case."
EU and Irish officials also stressed that Britain, whose prime minister Theresa May will be absent, has itself taken the same view on EU membership for Northern Ireland. Brexit minister David Davis acknowledged last month that, if it united with the Republic, it would be entitled to be absorbed into the EU.
Unification not imminent
Calls for a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom have picked up since Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU, while the United Kingdom's two other nations, England and Wales, chose to leave in last year's Brexit vote.
Elections in Northern Ireland in March denied pro-British unionists a majority in the province for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921, further emboldening Irish nationalists and their main political representatives Sinn Fein.
But Kenny has consistently said that now is not the right time for a vote and demographics suggest it could take a generation before Catholics, who tend to back Irish nationalist parties, become a majority among Northern Ireland's population.
Northern Ireland's future is part of broader uncertainty for territories of what was once the world's biggest empire.
Britain's right-wing press fulminated last month against EU plans to spell out that Spain, which claims sovereignty over Gibraltar, should have a veto over applying any future EU-UK free trade deal to the tiny British enclave.
Last week, Argentina said it thought it might gain EU backing after Brexit for its claim to the Falkland Islands, 35 years after losing a brief war there to Britain.
Closer to home, Brexit has fuelled calls to break away not only in Northern Ireland but also in Scotland.