British Irish Association in Cambridge hears calls for UK to stay in Customs Union and to make North a Special Zone
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney urged the UK to remain in an extended or modified Customs Union with the EU after Brexit to avoid a hard Border. He was speaking at the British Irish Association in Cambridge last weekend.
The BIA was formed in 1972 when more than 470 people lost their lives to Northern Ireland’s Troubles. It brings together civil servants, diplomats, elected representatives, ministers, trades unionists, members of the clergy, trades unionists, police and intelligence personnel for the weekend for informal, off the record exchanges of ideas.
At last weekend’s session, in a published speech, Mr Coveney questioned why the British government had ruled out the idea even before trade negotiations had begun.
After all, he said, the vote to leave the EU was never explicitly a vote to leave the Customs Union or Single Market and “shutting off avenues such as remaining in a Customs Union, without agreed deliverable and credible alternative pathways, narrows future options in a dangerous way.”
In any case, he observed, Brexit would realistically need “a substantial transition period that allows everyone to prepare adequately for new realities.”
That transition should aim to keep things as normal in terms of membership of the customs and the single market because it would “confound all logic” to expect businesses to adjust to new arrangements twice.
He said Britain’s proposals, in a series of position papers released over the last three weeks, for a streamlined customs arrangement would undermine the integrity of the EU’s single market.
“Streamlined customs arrangements are unlikely to be streamlined enough for businesses whose margins are tight. And while a customs partnership has some promise as an idea, this will simply not be feasible if it is undercut by the UK making trade deals with countries that don’t share our standards or systems.
“There is an obvious solution, if we really value the peace and prosperity that has brought us this far. And that is for the UK to remain in an extended Customs Union and Single Market, or some version of that concept, taking advantage of the new and comprehensive trade deals the EU is reaching with countries like Canada and Japan.”
At the same gathering Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin – whose party supports Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s minority Fine Gael-led government, called for Northern Ireland, and the Border counties in the Republic, to be designated a Special Economic Zone within the EU.
“A Special Economic Zone in Northern Ireland could be recognised by the EU as being distinct from the rest of the UK in terms of single market and Customs Union access,” he said.
This could be done, he said, while “respecting the constitutional rights protected in the Good Friday Agreement.”
UK sovereignty would remain intact and it was UK government policy to support such zones in countries with “structural development issues in defined regions”.
Such a SEZ would need a means to certify that goods produced or originating in Northern Ireland met the relevant EU standards and this “should not be hard” to achieve.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said at the same event that stopping the wages of Stormont’s elected MLAs is being considered by the British government as the assembly has not met for several months.
Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, collapsed the power sharing devolved administration at the start of this year. Assembly elections and a General Election have been held since then but neither party is prepared to agree to go back into government with the other.
Mr Brokenshire has until next month to decide to restore direct rule from Westminster but such a development, he said, would be “a hugely retrograde step, a massive setback after so many years of progress and hope”.
“For our part the UK and Irish governments can support and work with the parties towards that end, in accordance with and fully respecting the three stranded approach but ultimately we cannot force an agreement,” he said.