Checkpoint Britain: PM May to propose UK acts as a trade frontier to the EU
Prime Minister Theresa May is to present Brussels with a post- Brexit customs scheme to solve the Northern Irish border dilemma. The scheme to be discussed with EU officials this month proposes that the UK act as the external frontier for the EU.
Meanwhile, the leader of Ireland’s Opposition party whose support is keeping Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s party in power, Micheál Martin, said this week Northern Ireland should be designated its own special economic area.
Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin said his proposed special economic zone for Northern Ireland, resisted by the British government, would allow it to operate as part of both the UK and the EU.
“Northern Ireland has the worst indices in terms of poverty, second-level school completion, economically it’s very dependant on the public sector and so, long term, it can be argued it needs a lift, it needs an economic stimulus. What is wrong with Northern Ireland getting a special deal via an economic zone that would both be within the EU and within the UK system? It doesn’t threaten the constitutional framework. They get the best of both worlds. It’s a win-win for them.”
He criticised Sinn Féin for trying to use Brexit to force people into a united Ireland. The so-called “ customs partnership” plan, says Britain, is the best way to avoid disruption at ports and the Irish border.
It would entail the UK would mirroring the EU’s regulations for imports from the rest of the world. The UK would collect EU tariffs and enforce other EU requirements on imports. The UK would apply EU duties on cars, food and other imports destined for EU member states at the same rate as if the goods had arrived at an EU port, and then pass the money on to Brussels.
For goods destined for the UK, Britain would apply its own tariffs depending on different free-trade deals. But it would be fiendishly involved and complicated and take many years before it is introduced in full. It is also said to rely on technology that has not yet been invented or on the market.
A ministerial group on Northern Ireland comprising Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has been tasked with finding solutions to the mutually exclusive propositions of taking Northern Ireland out of the EU yet keeping the island of Ireland effectively border free.
The latest plan disclosed to the pro-business, pro-EU newspaper The Financial Times and was not apparently, as many first thought, an April Fool prank.
The “customs partnership” plan – once derided by EU ministers, diplomats and Commission officials as “magical thinking” – would ostensibly remove the need for customs checks at the Irish border. Border checks would be required if Britain departed from EU regulatory standards.
The British insists it will prevent a hard land border in Northern Ireland – or a border in the Irish Sea – after Brexit. The Irish government says that if this is not achieved – and it does not know it can be done – then its “backstop” agreement with the rest of the EU means a final Brexit deal will be vetoed until Northern Ireland follows EU rules.
All member states have until November to agree the final deal which will need to be ratified in 28 countries’ legislatures. Because of the complexity of establishing Britain as a customs outpost for the EU such a scheme would take several years to complete.
That would mean Britain and the EU having the same regulations for years after the planned transition period which is due to end in 2021. This is likely to be resisted by the fiercely anti-EU cohort in Mrs May’s party led by the likes of Jacob Rees- Mogg.
The British government insists that its ports will be ready with minimal disruption on day one of Brexit but there has been little evidence of practical preparation compared to other EU countries. In the Netherlands 750 new customs officers have been hired specifically to respond to Brexit.
Last year the permanent secretary at HM Revenue & Customs Jon Thompson said setting up an entirely new customs infrastructure – like Singapore – would take five to seven years.