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Round 4 of Brexit trade talks: 'Green lane' progress, and a glimpse of the UK's IT system for customs

There was progress both at the negotiation table in Brussels, and from the UK on customs technology.

The Pride of Kent as it arrives at the Port of Dover.
The Pride of Kent as it arrives at the Port of Dover.
Image: PA Images

THE FOURTH ROUND of Brexit trade talks ended a day early this week, with both sides warning of remaining big differences while also committing to continue negotiations next week in London.

The meetings in Brussels were the first held face-to-face since the coronavirus shutdown, adding to hopes that substantial progress would be made.

“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement,” Barnier said in a statement.

But, of course, things don’t always go to plan when it comes to Brexit: “However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain.”

More hopefully, the former French minister added: “We continue to believe that an agreement is possible and in everyone’s interest.”

Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost closely mirrored Barnier’s statement, warning that “significant differences” remain with the European Union.

belgium-eu-britian-brexit British Brexit negotiator David Frost and Britain's Ambassador to the European Union Tim Barrow. Source: JOHN THYS via PA Images

But Frost added: “We remain committed to working hard to find an early understanding on the principles underlying an agreement.”

This isn’t too dissimilar to the language used at the tail end of negotiations for the Withdrawal Agreement, which did eventually culminate in a ratified deal.

So, where were there agreements?

Yesterday, there were reports that Irish and UK officials agreed to allow Irish food products and live animals to travel through the UK via ‘green lanes’ as its landbridge to the European Union.

What this would mean, in practice, is that hauliers carrying food and animal products from Ireland destined for the EU can travel through UK ports without having to go through as many custom checks. Post-Brexit, there will be more checks in place for countries travelling from NI to GB, or vice versa. 

In March, the Irish Cabinet was told that this arrangement would mean traders only have to make customs declarations and pay import duties when they arrive at their final destination.

This is actually something that had been agreed two years prior, as stated by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney: “We politically agreed two years ago to develop ‘green lanes’ for Irish goods moving between parts of our single market via the UK landbridge”.

Although it had been agreed that Irish goods being sent to the EU, and vice versa, would be allowed to bypass checks at UK ports, the exact details had yet to be worked out.

coronavirus-mon-may-11-2020 The Port of Dover in Kent. Source: PA Images

Technical work is still ongoing about how IT systems would work: for example, what happens when Irish goods arrive in Calais through the UK landbridge.

This issue has been discussed this week, and solutions to problems previously raised by other EU member states in relation to this issue were found and sent around. 

Disagreements

Since the beginning of trade talks, the topics that have remained the biggest divider for the negotiating teams is the level playing field provisions, the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice, and what access to UK waters EU fishing vessels will get.

The UK is still requesting that the European Court of Justice hold no legal jurisdiction in the UK; that there would be no obligation for the UK to continue to be bound by EU law; and for an agreement on fisheries that reflects the Brexit vote to ‘take back our waters’.

As stated by Barnier in his statement this week, the aims that the EU negotiating team has are: robust guarantees for a level playing field – including the crucial issue of State aid – to ensure open and fair competition among businesses; a fair deal on fisheries; and an effective ‘dispute settlement’ mechanism (meaning the European Court of Justice or another body to settle disputes).

There are serious gaps to be bridged there – particularly on the level-playing field provision, and fisheries (read more about the plight of Irish fishermen here).

‘Light touch’ technology

There was a lot of doubt about the notion that technology could help avoid a hard border – there was some light shed this week into how exactly it could work:

Goods HMRC Source: HM Revenue & Customs

Reminder: A Command Paper published in May showed the UK’s proposed plans for checks and controls between Northern Ireland and the UK post-Brexit. This proposed “unfettered access” from NI to GB, meaning there will be no additional checks or restrictions on Northern Ireland goods arriving in the rest of the UK.From GB to NI, there would be no tariffs on goods that remain in the UK, but there would need to be declaration of goods; this would be done through an IT system to assess risk and compliance in a “light-touch” way.

In HM Revenue & Customs documents first reported on by Bloomberg, and shared publicly by Guardian journalist Lisa O’Carroll here, plans are laid out about how to abide by the Northern Ireland protocol, and ensure customs rules are obeyed.

It states that on trade going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, “this should take place as it does now”.

On trade going from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland, it states that there will be no tariffs if the goods remain in Northern Ireland (a separate problem is how traders prove where they end up), but goods that go beyond that will face duties. 

There will be import and entry summary declarations (relating to safety and security) on goods coming from the UK and destined for Northern Ireland – but the document states that there will be “no new physical customs infrastructure”.

The system unveiled in this document requires ports and terminals to adopt either a pre-lodgement process or a storage model to carry out custom checks. 

For the pre-lodgement model, a technology system called the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) is being launched by HMRC, in order to allow customs declarations to be made ahead of time. 

This will mean that a haulier, the person delivering the goods, will be given a Goods Movement Reference number (GMR) which they can provide to prove that goods have been declared ahead of time.

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The document says that the movement of goods should be “linked” to declarations, “enabling the automatic arrival in HMRC systems as soon as goods board so that declarations can be processed en route”. This would mean that they are given clearance by the time the hauliers depart at a port.

But a Northern Ireland committee on Infrastructure was told this week that any delays here could be quite costly, as Roger Armson of Larne Port said: “An intervention of 5-10 seconds per vehicle, and all of a sudden traffic is backed up onto the ship.”

When Armson asked at a stakeholders’ meeting how long will it take for a truck giving data to receive a response from Revenue, he said he didn’t really get an answer, but added, “We’re hoping it will be instantaneous”. 

So there seems to be some clarity at the end of the tunnel – but it remains to be seen if it works in practice.

Background

The UK left the EU on 30 January this year, immediately entering a post-Brexit transition period during which it still benefits from de facto EU membership – it still remains in the Customs Union and Single Market.

This transition period comes to an end on 31 December, by which time it is hoped an EU-UK Free Trade Agreement, ratified by the EU and UK parliaments, will come into effect.

Without a new agreement, the two sides would see ties reduced to minimum standards set by the World Trade Organization with high tariffs, quotas and serious disruptions to business.

London is pushing hard to agree on the broad outlines of the trade deal this summer to give businesses clarity well before the end of the year.

The EU is less pressed for time and believes that necessary ratification by the European Parliament and other member states would require a deal to be done by late October.

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