Thursday

2nd Feb 2023

Leaked British customs plan is 'non-starter', Ireland says

  • British border posts were flashpoint for sectarian violence prior to the Good Friday pact (Photo: henrikjon)

Britain is to propose creating new customs checkpoints near the Irish border, leaked proposals say, in an idea immediately rubbished by Ireland.

The checkpoints are to be called "inland customs clearance sites", according to one of four informal British documents recently sent to the European Commission and seen by Irish broadcaster RTE.

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There would be ten or so of them on the Irish side and another ten in Northern Ireland, all situated about 5-10km away from the border itself.

Traders would lodge declarations with national authorities on what goods they were to bring across.

Selected trucks would then be checked and cleared by customs authorities either at the traders' premises or at the "inland" checkpoints.

And the trucks would be fitted with GPS devices so that authorities on both sides could track their movements in real time.

Traders could also speed up bureaucracy by applying to become registered "consigners" or "consignees" and sign bonds with a financial institution to guarantee that they had paid customs duty, excise, and VAT and that their consignments would stick to pre-agreed routes.

And large companies could apply to become "authorised economic operators", minimising paperwork still further.

The proposal is designed to replace the so-called "backstop" - an existing plan for the UK to stay inside the EU's customs union until such time as an alternative solution was found to keep the border open.

The British parliament has rejected the idea three times already under former prime minister Theresa May on grounds it would impinge on British sovereignty.

But Ireland and the EU have also rejected anything that would resemble the kind of hard border which existed on the island of Ireland before the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, which ended decades of sectarian violence, including terrorist attacks on British border posts.

And Ireland swiftly rejected the ideas leaked to RTE on the same grounds.

"Non-paper = non-starter. Time the EU had a serious proposal from the UK government if a Brexit deal is to be achievable in October," Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said on Monday, referring to the informal British proposal, called a "non-paper" in diplomatic jargon.

Northern Ireland and Ireland "deserve better", he added.

The opposition Fianna Fail party called the British idea "a border with a buffer zone" and something which "we cannot tolerate on our island".

The nationalist Sinn Fein party called it "vexatious and almost menacing" as well as "further evidence of Tory recklessness and belligerence towards Ireland", referring to Britain's ruling Conservative party.

Coveney, who met with the EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Monday, also said "until there is a serious proposal in writing ... then the gaps that are wide at the moment will remain. And time is running out" before the 31 October Brexit deadline.

"An extension [of the deadline] is preferable to no deal," he added.

"It's the UK's responsibility to come forward with legally-operational solutions that are compatible with the [existing] withdrawal agreement," European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva also said in Brussels on Monday.

"The commission is, and remains, open to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop," she added.

For his part, British prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to send a formal legal proposal to Brussels after the Conservative party conference in Manchester in the UK ends on Thursday.

He will then try to seek agreement from the 27 other EU leaders at a summit in the EU capital on 17 October.

"I'm cautiously optimistic. We have made some pretty big moves, we are waiting to see whether our European friends will help us and whether we can find the right landing zone," he said in Manchester on Monday.

Designed to fail?

But question marks remain on whether he seriously believes that such drastic changes to the backstop plan have any chance of gaining accord, or whether his proposal is designed to fail, prompting a no-deal exit which his government could blame on the EU.

The British parliament has passed a law, called the Benn Act, saying Johnson would have to ask the EU for an extension of the 31 October deadline if he failed to clinch an agreement.

"My view is the Benn Act works, that the government will be compelled to seek and Article 50 extension and if the prime minister doesn't want to do that then he will have to resign," Dominic Grieve, Britain's former attorney general, said, referring to the EU treaty article which governs the Brexit process.

If Johnson refused to extend the date or to resign then he would be "taken to court" and forced out of office, Grieve noted.

And if a general election was held in the wake of a no-deal Brexit, then the Conservative party would find itself hammered in the polls due to the economic damage that would cause, David Gauke, Britain's former justice minister, also warned.

The party "would own a no-deal Brexit and if it is anything like as bad as the consensus view on the impact of the economy, we would be out on our ear at the next election," Gauke said.

"I worry delivering no-deal would create the circumstances in which a hard-left Labour Party could win a majority," he added, referring to Britain's main opposition party.

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