Jamie Delargy: Customs operation at local ports must be most pragmatic Brexit solution
IT'S time to think the unthinkable and recognise that Brexit may lead to the creation of a border down the Irish Sea. It’s an outcome which, if you consider it soberly, is in nobody’s interests, but it’s beginning to look more and more likely. If that is the case, then it’s high time politicians and business people examined what the implications might be.
It’s worth rehearsing briefly why the North Channel might turn into a customs channel. The EU has repeatedly said it doesn’t want a hard border in Ireland. That would be achievable if, along with some other measures, the UK as a whole were to stay in the customs union.
But Theresa May has once again said continuing membership is not on the cards. The Prime Minister’s position on this is so consistent that at a certain point I think we have to recognise that she means it. In any case she really has no choice. If the British Government were to stay in the customs union, it would empty Brexit of much of its content.
The hardline Brexiteers within the the Conservative Party simply wouldn’t wear it. Many of us might cheer at the prospect of staying in the customs union or some new version of it but it doesn’t look as if it’s going to happen.
London, of course, recognises that leaving the customs union has the potential to hinder the flow of trade not just within Ireland but also between the UK and the EU in general. And so it has come up with a couple of proposals.
One involves a customs partnership where the UK would collect tariffs at ports on behalf of the EU. The other would use technology and 'trusted trader' schemes. But only recently both have been rejected once again as unworkable by the EU. It’s conceivable a new plan which will satisfy all sides is at this very minute being finalised but most observers are sceptical that the Gordian Knot can be unravelled.
Should a solution prove elusive, the UK has agreed to implement measures specifically designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland. What this involves is a matter of interpretation. When the proposal was first published in a joint report between the EU and UK last December it appeared to suggest that Northern Ireland, at least, would effectively stay within the Single Market and the Customs Union. That promise however was drained of any force by a pledge not to create new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
A Draft Withdrawal Agreement published last month on the face of it did not resolve the issue. However, I believe it did represent an important step forward. The negotiators on behalf of the EU and the UK agreed that, in the absence of any other solution to the border conundrum, a so called backstop in line with the earlier joint report should be part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Significantly in this document there was no repeat of the promise to avoid new regulatory barriers between NI and GB. In short we have the promise of a backstop in formal legal language and this guarantee is not negated by any talk of avoiding new East West regulatory barriers.
Yes, it is true this backstop is not clearly defined but we know that it involves alignment with the rules of the Single Market and the Customs Union. In my view it looks as if London is moving closer to acceptance that should it find no other way of avoiding a hard border. it will allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.
But even if that is not the UK’s position right now, it might be in the autumn. More than anything the UK needs a deal with the EU. If conceding influence over Northern Ireland’s trade arrangements is the price it has to pay, then who would bet against customs controls in the Irish Sea?
There is, of course, the highly sensitive local political dimension. In this regard it’s worth noting that staying in the EU doesn’t shift Northern Ireland any closer to the Irish Republic than it does to Latvia or Slovenia.
Successful implementation of such a plan would critically depend on how the proposition was sold. Advertised as an internal border it would be unacceptable to many Unionist and Conservative voters. However if the checks were promoted as an extension of the controls that already govern agricultural trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, then they might prove more palatable.
One advantage is that unlike any form of checks on the land border, customs control at the ports here would be invisible to the vast majority of the population. Dare I say it, much of the monitoring could be handled by the introduction of technology such as automatic number plate recognition.
In addition a wide ranging free trade trade agreement would remove the incentive for smuggling. That in turn would relieve the need for checks on travellers.
To me, a sea border is the least worst option. The best course of action is that the UK remains in the EU. The next best is that we stay in the customs union. But since neither of those options is likely, then the most pragmatic solution to the quandary we are now facing is a customs operation located mainly at our local ports.
:: Jamie Delargy (email@example.com) is a freelance business broadcaster and commentator.