British position papers on customs union and Northern Ireland imminent – Politico website exclusive

Britain is about to show its hand in Brexit negotiations in plans that reveal the U.K. wants a smooth route out of the European Union.

The U.K. will seek a transitional customs agreement with the EU before moving to a new permanent relationship under plans sent to relevant members of Theresa May’s Cabinet for agreement before being published later this month, according to senior government officials.

The proposal — if it is agreed politically — will be set out in an official “position paper” that has been penciled in for publication the week of August 14, an official familiar with the content of the paper said. A second position paper, outlining the government’s long-awaited “solution” to the Northern Ireland border issue, which the U.K. considers bound up with its customs relationship with the EU, has been earmarked for publication the same week, officials said.

The position papers will form part of what officials described as a “big push” to counter a perception among the EU27 that the U.K. is underprepared for Brexit. They are the first of up to a dozen U.K. position papers to be published by the government over the next two months, ahead of the crucial October European Council summit, as set out to POLITICO in conversations with five senior U.K. government officials involved in the preparations for Brexit.

But while the EU is likely to welcome the emerging clarity in London’s position, senior U.K. aides said the government remains determined to hold back on resolving how much the U.K. must pay to settle what the EU sees as its financial liabilities, a move that is likely to infuriate Brussels.

The U.K. is also insistent that the Irish border question must be considered alongside future customs arrangements, something the EU wants to delay until its first three priorities are resolved.

Customs arrangements ‘critical’

While Britain’s future customs agreement with the EU is not on the agenda for this month’s Brexit talks, the U.K. believes the issue is “inextricably linked” to the Northern Ireland question, which Brussels has demanded progress on. By publishing the two documents together before the talks in Brussels, London hopes to persuade Barnier that the two cannot be dealt with separately.

Under the original plan drawn up in Whitehall, with input from No. 10 Downing Street, the position papers were set to be published in two tranches — one before the August talks in Brussels and the second before the next round in September.

However, the publication dates are now in flux, according to aides familiar with the discussions. Officials have even discussed publishing them all simultaneously this month in a show of force to counter accusations that the British government does not have a plan.

The customs paper is regarded by the U.K.’s Brexit team as being of “critical importance,” according to one senior government official involved in the planning process who asked to remain anonymous.

Northern Ireland proposal

Both sides agree Northern Ireland is a priority, though neither has yet put forward a proposal to manage the land border without destabilizing peace in the region once the U.K. leaves the bloc.

London hopes its position paper will break the deadlock on the issue, which is being managed directly by Britain’s leading Brexit official Oliver Robbins, the permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union and May’s EU sherpa, and by Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand.

Northern Ireland is viewed by the EU27 as an exit issue — and therefore a priority for the initial phases of Brexit talks — but Britain believes a resolution depends heavily upon issues that the EU considers to be part of the future relationship bucket of issues, namely customs and transition.

The position paper dedicated to Northern Ireland will set out the U.K.’s long-awaited proposals for avoiding a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland. While officials declined to share details of the plan, the U.K. government has been considering technical fixes —  such as camera recognition technology and pre-registered cargo — to minimize the need for physical border check points.

London is not convinced by arguments, made recently by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, that the matter cannot be resolved by such “technical solutions.” One of the U.K. officials said Coveney’s comments, to RTÉ in July, had been “premature.”

The British have been “taken aback” by the more assertive tone of the new Irish administration, under Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the official added. On Friday, Varadkar called on the U.K., if it must leave the EU customs union, to join a new bilateral customs union with the EU similar to Turkey’s.

With talks due to resume in the last week of August, both sides in the negotiation will soon find out exactly how far they are apart on key issues



Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London