UK unveils Brexit plan to avoid hard border with Ireland
LONDON — The U.K. government will put forward proposals Wednesday for how to avoid a hard border with Ireland while at the same time leaving the EU’s customs union.
Neither side in the Brexit negotiations favors a return to a hard border because of the implications for security of recreating physical border posts, but the U.K. is insistent that it wants to leave the EU customs union so that it can pursue its own trade policy, meaning goods would be required to pass through some kind of check as they crossed between the Republic of Ireland and the North. Until now, the U.K. has not specified how it plans to square that circle.
In a position paper to be published Wednesday, Theresa May’s government lays out how its proposals on post-Brexit customs arrangements — which it released Tuesday — will apply to the Northern Irish border.
The papers are part of a push by the U.K. to reject what it sees as the EU’s rigid sequencing of talks, in which Brussels insists “sufficient progress” must be made made on Britain’s so-called divorce bill, the Northern Irish border and citizens’ rights before talks can progress to the U.K.’s future relationship with the bloc. London argues that the Irish border and future customs arrangements are inextricably interlinked.
The paper on the Irish border will argue that both customs options the U.K. has put forward — a “streamlined” arrangement with technological solutions to negate the need for border checks or an unprecedented customs “partnership” in which the U.K. imposes EU rules and tariffs on most third-country goods — will retain an invisible, frictionless border.
Key to the proposals is exempting small and medium traders from customs checks.
“These arrangements would also need facilitations reflecting the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, such as new trusted-trader arrangements to deliver highly streamlined processes for larger traders and cross-border trade exemption meaning no new customs processes at all for smaller traders. Over 80 percent of cross-border trade is by [small and medium sized enterprises],” the U.K. Brexit department briefing note said.
The position paper will also call for a swift agreement with the EU to protect the pre-existing Common Travel Area (CTA), which allows both U.K. and Irish nationals to travel freely without being subject to passport controls.
The paper, which will dismiss the idea of a customs border in the Irish Sea as “not constitutionally or economically viable,” will be closely watched in Dublin. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said earlier this month that May should abandon her policy of leaving the EU customs union.
In 2015, Northern Ireland sold £10.7 billion worth of goods to Britain and a further £2.7 billion worth to Ireland, while last year Britain exported £13.6 billion worth of goods to Ireland, and imported £9.1 billion, the Brexit department statement said.
Labour MP Conor McGinn, a supporter of the Open Britain cross-party campaign group, said: “These proposals on a light touch border are lighter still on detail. They don’t outline how a frictionless or seamless border can be achieved when the U.K. leaves the EU and won’t reassure anybody about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.”
“On customs, the government are admitting that a hard Brexit that takes us out of the customs union will lead to more form-filling and red tape for firms on both sides of the border,” he said. “That would damage the economy and put jobs at risk.”
The Liberal Democrats accused the government of breaking promises made by the Leave campaign that Brexit would not leave the border any less open after Brexit.
Tom Brake, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, said: “It’s clear the government can’t deliver on the Leave campaign’s promise that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will stay as open as it is now. Even if they only lead to checks on larger traders, these plans could still severely disrupt trade and have a destabilizing impact on the region as a whole. The only sure way to deliver a truly seamless border is to keep the U.K. in the customs union and the single market.”
Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director general, said businesses need more detail. “Business has been clear that maintaining an open, frictionless border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and between Great Britain and the island of Ireland is essential to supporting jobs and the economy.”
“Companies will be examining these latest proposals closely to ensure they deliver on commitments to ensuring there are no new barriers and that the Common Travel Area is protected,” he said.
This article has been corrected to clarify provisions under the Common Travel Area.
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