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No customs infrastructure, but some checks: The UK's conflicted plan for the Northern Ireland Protocol

Here’s what happened with Brexit this week.
May 23rd 2020, 9:00 PM 22,519 7

THIS WEEK, THE UK published its plan for how the Northern Ireland protocol would be implemented – an ongoing issue during the first phase of Brexit talks.

This was important, as although both the EU and UK agree on many things about how the protocol should work, there are a lot of blanks yet to be filled in.

Until the EU and UK map out more detail on what their future trading relationship will be, these aspects of the protocol can’t yet be definitive – though they can be clarified.

What had been agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement was that Northern Ireland would remain aligned to the EU’s Custom Union, while also being a part of the UK’s custom territory.

The best way to describe this would be a very complicated Venn Diagram, with Northern Ireland’s custom arrangements in the middle.

That is all we have known for sure: it was up to the trade talks and a special Northern Ireland Protocol committee to hone down this arrangement further. 

What we knew before this about the NI Protocol

The general assumption of what this would mean was: if goods are sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, tariffs would be paid on those goods, but would be rebated to businesses if they proved the goods stayed in Northern Ireland.

If goods are sent from Great Britain through Northern Ireland to Ireland, tariffs will apply as the goods have gone to the EU, but they will be collected at ports and airports along the Irish Sea.

As part of this, UK officials would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU. What hasn’t been clear is whether the UK would make its own checks on goods coming from Northern Ireland, or if the EU would want checks in place to make sure its rules are being enforced along the Irish Sea.

It also wasn’t clear what checks, if any, would be needed along the border on the island of Ireland.

What the UK document says about checks

This week, the UK clarified two things in its “command paper” called ‘The UK’s Approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol‘.

The issue of whether customs checks are necessary depends on two things: how different the customs rules are between the EU and UK, and how stringently either country wants to enforce the rules.

It accepted that there would have to be some new “light-touch” and “streamlined” checks on goods entering Northern Ireland after Brexit, and that technology would be used to do this.

Other than emphatically stating that there would be “no new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland”, it didn’t clarify exactly how this would be done. 

The UK document states:

The Protocol means that UK authorities apply EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland. This entails some new administrative process for traders, notably new electronic import declaration requirements, and safety and security information, for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

It also says that export or exit summary declarations for goods going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK “makes no sense” – as this was requested by the EU.  

GB to NI tariffs

There will be no tariffs on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the document states:

There should be no tariffs on internal UK trade because, as the Protocol acknowledges, the UK is a single customs territory.

The UK government weighs heavily on this as a reason why there will be no tariffs on goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland.

The problem is if a business cannot prove where a product it is importing will end up, they may have difficulty getting reimbursed – even if the product remains in Northern Ireland.

Even further than that, the EU wants tariffs paid on goods headed to Northern Ireland that are at ‘risk’ of travelling to the EU, which the UK is pushing back on:

A supermarket delivering to its stores in Northern Ireland poses no ‘risk’ to the EU market whatsoever, and no tariffs would be owed for such trade.

The document also says some expanded checks on live animals and animal products moving from mainland Britain into Northern Ireland may be necessary, as the province will continue to follow EU rules on agriculture and manufactured goods.

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The European Commission welcomed the clarification, with a spokesman saying it would examine the text and “look forward to detailed discussions with the UK”.

In November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told business leaders in Northern Ireland that there would be “no checks” on goods going from Northern Ireland to GB:

I speak as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and a passionate unionist, there will not be checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain! Because we’re the government of the UK, and we will not institute, or enact such checks. 

This doesn’t mean that the checks won’t happen on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which would be the enforcement of EU rules. 

Trade talks are getting spiky

Talks to set up a post-Brexit trade agreement are not going well. In fact, the UK declared it would publish this “command paper” as a signal that it is acting in good faith, after Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan and others accused the UK of not taking negotiations seriously.

These tensions reached a new height this week.

UK chief negotiator David Frost accused Brussels of offering a “low quality trade agreement” that he said was not worthy of a close partner like Britain.

In a return letter, EU negotiator Michel Barnier hit back: “I would not like the tone that you have taken to impact the mutual trust and constructive attitude that is essential between us.”

The ill-tempered exchange came just days after a third round of video talks ended without progress, with each side again accusing the other of refusing to compromise.

However, a British official close to the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, played down the row, saying: “Difficult exchanges are a sign that genuine engagement is beginning.”

- with reporting from AFP

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Gráinne Ní Aodha

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