No-deal Brexit: British government confirms zero tariffs on goods entering north over border

The British government has confirmed that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, there will be zero tarrifs on goods coming over the border into the north
David Young and Andrew Woodcock, Press Association

No import tariffs will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland across the border under the British government's no-deal Brexit plans.

The north will be treated differently from the rest of the UK, where tariffs will be imposed on some EU goods if a Brexit deal fails to materialise.

The arrangements, which the government insists will be "strictly temporary", will be introduced as part of efforts to maintain a free-flowing border. It is intended that they will apply until a new trading regime is negotiated with the EU.

The plan represents only the UK side of what a post-Brexit border would look like in the event of a no deal. It will be for the EU and Irish government to set out what tariff regime would apply to goods travelling the other way if the UK exits without a trade agreement.

Government lawyers are confident the approach will be compliant with the UK's international legal obligations, respecting both World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement.

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While there is an acknowledged risk in Whitehall of Northern Ireland becoming a "back door" for EU goods to enter the wider UK market tariff-free - potentially opening up a lucrative smuggling channel - new laws will be introduced to crack down on anyone trying to exploit the system.

However, no new checks or controls will be introduced at Irish Sea ports to police this, with the authorities instead relying on an intelligence model to detect and intercept those trying to avoid tariffs.

Northern Ireland Retail Consortium Director, Aodhán Connolly criticised the plans.

"The government and the EU must see that this is simply now a mess. No tariffs and no extra checks is not just no short term solution, it is no solution at all," he said. 

"A UK tariff free position in Northern Ireland would  effectively mean a hard border in Ireland as the EU will act to secure its single market and customs union from cheap low standard imports and arbitrage. 

"The people who will suffer most are legitimate businesses and farmers in Northern Ireland who will not be able to move their goods to the Republic of Ireland without tariffs whereas Republic of Ireland  goods will have free rein and it will be a goldmine for criminals."

Irish businesses that currently use Northern Ireland as an established route to enter the GB market should not be hit by the new tariffs, with the anti-avoidance rules instead intended for those that pro-actively change the way they do business to exploit the potential loophole.

Ministers accept that the new regime will cause competitiveness "concerns" to Northern Ireland businesses and farmers, as while Irish goods entering Northern Ireland will avoid tariffs, goods going in the opposite direction could be negatively affected, depending on the position adopted by the EU in the event of a no-deal.

But they say the arrangements are the only steps that could be taken to deliver on the government's commitment to avoiding a hard border in the case of no deal.

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Under the Northern Ireland plan, there will be no new checks or controls on the Irish border. The government said there will be a requirement for a number of biosecurity checks, but these will not be carried out at the border.

To protect human, animal and plant health, animals and animal products from outside the EU would be required to enter Northern Ireland through a designated entry point, while regulated plant materials from outside the EU and high-risk plants from inside Europe will require certification and pre-notification.

There will be new UK import requirements such as document checks and registration for a small number of goods such as endangered species and hazardous chemicals which are subject to international agreements.

Goods arriving from Ireland into Northern Ireland would still be subject to the same VAT and excise duty obligations as at present.

The government may need to invoke an exemption from standard WTO rules, on the grounds of "public morals", to enable it to allow goods to enter Northern Ireland tariff-free.

It would likely cite the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as part of its justification for taking steps to prevent a hardening of the Irish border.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley said: "The government has been clear that a deal with the European Union is the best outcome for Northern Ireland.

"But we will do all we can to support people and businesses across Northern Ireland in the event that we leave without a deal.

"The measures announced today recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. These arrangements can only be temporary and short-term."

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