Wednesday

23rd May 2018

UK seeks 'unprecedented' Irish border deal

  • Irish crossing point in 1968 - physical borders symbolise a return to a troubled past. (Photo: henrikjon)

The UK is to call for a “unique” deal on its Irish border, one day after its ideas on future EU trade were branded a “fantasy”.

There must be no return to the watchtowers and fences that marked the line between Ireland and Northern Ireland prior to the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, the British government said in a briefing note on Tuesday (15 August).

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  • Sinn Fein posters - protesting any new border controls between Ireland and N. Ireland. (Photo: EUobserver)

“Top of our list is to agree upfront no physical border infrastructure - that would mean a return to the border posts of the past and is completely unacceptable to the UK,” it said.

It said the post-Brexit border should be an “unprecedented model” based on the “unique circumstances of Northern Ireland” and that EU negotiators would have to show “flexibility and imagination” to get the right deal.

It called for the EU to uphold the Common Travel Area - an agreement that allows Irish and UK nationals to cross the border with no passport checks.

It also said there should be few or no customs checks for traders, either at the 200 land crossing points or at Irish Sea ports.

It said an Irish Sea customs border would be “not constitutionally or economically viable”.

It proposed that the UK should have either a customs “partnership” with the EU, which meant goods could flow as freely as they did today, or a “highly streamlined” customs border.

The “streamlined” option would mean “no new customs processes at all for smaller traders” in Ireland and Northern Ireland, who account for 80 percent of cross-border traffic.

It would use “trusted-trader arrangements” for larger firms, with CCTV cameras that scanned truck number plates to give them electronic clearance before they reached the crossing line.

The UK plans to publish a detailed “future partnership paper” on Ireland on Wednesday (16 August).

The fragility of the Good Friday peace accord was highlighted by the Irish government on Tuesday, amid recent memories of sectarian violence on the island.

"Protecting the peace process is crucial and it must not become a bargaining chip in the [Brexit] negotiations," the Irish authorities said on Tuesday.

Devil in detail

The UK’s proposal on Ireland comes after it published a 16-page paper on future EU customs arrangements on Tuesday.

The customs paper called for an “interim” deal when the UK left the EU in March 2019 that would maintain current arrangements.

It detailed the customs “partnership” or “streamlined” border options that would apply to Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The “partnership” would create red tape because products that entered the joint EU-UK customs zone would have to be traced to end users to see if EU or UK tariffs applied.

Traders would then claim back money if the UK tariff was lower than the one that they first paid on the EU-UK customs border.

The “streamlined” model would also create “an increase in administration”, the UK said, because importers would have to do self-assessments of customs duties to avoid border checks.

The new arrangements would enter into force when the “interim” deal expired in 2021 or 2022, David Davis, the British minister in charge of Brexit, told the BBC on Tuesday.

He said at an event in Edinburgh the same day the interim deal might expire at different times for different economic sectors.

“The implementation period comes into play with different people in different ways … It may well vary by sector,” he said.

Fantasy?

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s spokesman on Brexit, immediately dismissed the UK’s ideas. “To be in and out of the Customs Union and [have] 'invisible borders' is a fantasy,” he said.

The Czech secretary of state for EU affairs took a similar line.

“It’s not possible to have the same advantages [on EU trade] and fewer obligations in general,” Ales Chmelar told The Guardian, a British newspaper.

A European Commission spokesman said the UK’s idea of “frictionless trade” was “not possible outside the single market and customs union”.

For his part, Michel Barnier, the Commission’s Brexit negotiator, ruled out early talks on UK trade.

“The quicker the UK and the EU-27 agree on citizens, settling accounts, and Ireland, the quicker we can discuss customs,” he said, referring to EU citizens' rights and to the UK's multi-billion euro EU budget obligations.

The UK is to publish a paper on the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice next week, while Barnier is to meet Davis for the next round of talks on 28 August.

UK tensions

The EU discussion comes amid political tensions in the UK.

James Chapman, Davis’ former top official, who left Whitehall to join Bell Pottinger, a London-based lobbyist firm, said on Tuesday he was creating a new political party to stop Brexit.

He aims to launch The Democrats on 9 September.

“There is no upside [to Brexit] and it is clear that every sector of our economy will suffer for decades to come,” Chapman said.

On the other side, Leave.eu, a group that campaigned for Brexit in last year’s UK referendum, called for Philip Hammond, the EU-friendly British treasury chief, to be ousted from office.

“He is part of a cabal of Westminster MPs who believe that if they can delay exit, they can overturn the wishes of the 52 percent [who voted to leave the EU],” Arron Banks, Leave.eu's chief, said.

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