Time for the Brexit negotiations is running out. Over the course of the negotiations, the EU has insisted that the supposed problem is “intractable” because the only way to protect the integrity of the EU single market is to institute a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Neither of these proposals is acceptable but, thankfully, neither is necessary. With such little time remaining, the negotiators must now take a realistic view of existing technical and administrative measures to handle the procedures for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The UK and the EU have both committed to introduce no new physical infrastructure after Brexit, but the issue of the border has nonetheless been allowed to frame the Brexit negotiations. There is already a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for tax, VAT, currency, excise and security. These are currently managed with technical and administrative procedures without infrastructure at the physical border.
The key obstacle is the EU’s concern over the possibility that goods could enter the EU single market through the border without being compliant with EU standards or tariffs. The paper which the ERG published today addresses this issue. It demonstrates that there are no threats to the integrity of the EU’s single market and customs union on the border which cannot be resolved with the use of existing technologies and procedures which conform with existing UK and EU law. There is no need for new physical infrastructure at the border and there is no reason for this issue to hold up a Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU.
Cross-border trade on the island of Ireland is mostly comprised of regular shipments of the same goods, with little third-country traffic. This repetitive trade is well suited to established technical solutions and simplified customs procedures already available in the Union Customs Code.
Larger companies may take advantage of trusted trader-type schemes. This status provides assurance of a high degree of compliance and hence entitles the bearer to simplified procedures.
For all companies, the requirements for additional declarations can be incorporated into the existing system used for VAT returns. Licensed customs brokers can be engaged to support businesses in dealing with rules of origin and customs arrangements.
For agricultural products, the Government should agree equivalence of UK and EU regulations and conformity assessment. Since UK and EU standards are identical and will remain identical at the point of departure, determining equivalence after Brexit should be straightforward. The current smooth movement of agricultural products across the Irish border – without the need for border inspection posts – can be continued by maintaining the island of Ireland as a Common Biosecurity Zone and this is not contentious.
The proposals described can all be realised within the existing legal and operational frameworks of the EU and the UK, based on the mutual trust on which regular trade depends. At the same time, this allows the United Kingdom to conduct an independent trade policy without threatening the integrity of the EU single market.
Any risk of fraud or smuggling can be addressed by effective co-operation by authorities on both sides of the border, as already occurs with smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, fuel and alcohol.
The PSNI, the Garda Síochána, customs authorities and law-enforcement agencies co-operate to counter this trade at present, without anyone suggesting that border posts and checks would make their efforts more effective.
Rational, pragmatic approaches can thus ensure that the vital trade across the border is maintained. These approaches, based upon current technology, are achievable without any new infrastructure at the border. There is nothing about such technical and administrative solutions which would weaken North-South co-operation. There is nothing which would reduce our commitment to the Belfast Agreement, or which might jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland. Harnessing the latest developments in international best practice can deliver continued co-operation and prosperity in the best interests of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
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