Some bold solutions, several welcome “principles” on dealing with the Irish border. The British paper in full is a serious document

The British paper on the border is at last the meaty  document  long called for. It makes a several  bold and practical suggestions for a seamless border  but leaves much up in the air, laying down “ principles” for future negotiations.

Many of these  go far beyond the Irish border issues to the heart of Brexit itself.  This is why the Irish  foreign minister Simon Coveney thinks he smells a rat, warning almost immediately that Ireland will not become a pawn in the negotiations.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said Ireland will be “stubborn” in Brexit negotiations when defending Irish interests.

Speaking in Iveagh House this afternoon, he welcomed the UK’s publication of position papers with “new language” from Britain about a customs union partnership.

The UK has explicitly ruled out any Brexit deal that would involve a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in a key position paper on its exit from the European Union.

Certainly we are not going to be used as a pawn here in any bigger negotiations,” he added.

Mr Coveney dismissed some of British customs proposals as “totally unworkable” but welcomed the commitment to upholding the Belfast Agreement, the Common Travel Area and other elements of the paper.

Overall the British are calling for  thinking well outside the EU box  containing the present template  for the negotiations, while remaining  within EU principles. In other words, solving the border problems is as much for the EU as the UK, regardless of who  created them ( and Leavers would argue, the EU did by becoming   overweaning and oppressive,so the blame game is pretty futile).

Here are some of the key proposals followed by extracts from the paper published at  lunchtime, partly culled from the papers.

Confounding speculation that the UK would advocate CCTV cameras or number plate recognition systems as part of its vision for a frictionless Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the new position paper has effectively recommended no change to the current arrangements.

 Surprisingly perhaps and no doubt welcomed all round, the UK calls on the EU to agree to the continuation of PEACE funding to Northern Ireland and border counties of Ireland. But just in case, they warn that this request doesn’t set a precedent for all financial

Trading arrangements should  go beyond anything  that the EU has in place with other countries  

It has also proposed a future customs arrangement which would see 80 per cent of businesses on the island entirely exempt from any new tariffs post-Brexit. That means most cross border business.  

When Brexit talks resume in two weeks, Britain will ask for an exemption for all small traders and farmers from a host of customs, agricultural and food safety checks. In return, it aims to seek “regulatory equivalence” with the EU to try to avoid the need for inspections of live animals and billions of pounds worth of other goods crossing back and forth.

The paper anticipates but not prescribe for a problem for the EU, the issue of  back door entry  for third country goods from the UK moving from north to south in Ireland and thus into the EU as a whole. As former Taoiseach John Bruton has just pointed out, the EU is obliged to collect tariffs and check standards on these goods. Under WTO rules, the EU cannot make an exception for the UK and Ireland. If it grants exemption for the UK and Ireland  it must  do it for all its trading partners.

Similarly on “free movement” for non British and non Irish citizens, the British recognise the possible of a backdoor entry problem and argue only that this is one of the reasons why the  negotiations should move on to the next phase as soon as possible.

In line with the importance that the UK places on continuing North-South cooperation, the principles proposed above specifically highlight the need to continue the operation of a single electricity market.

Extracts from  “Northern Ireland and Ireland. Position Paper”.         


Section 1: The Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement Upholding the Agreement

The UK believes that the UK and the EU should be mindful of the full breadth of commitments made in the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. Ensuring that nothing is done to undermine it will require detailed and close engagement between the UK and the EU throughout the negotiations.

At this stage, the UK proposes that both the UK and the EU should: ● affirm the ongoing support of the UK Government and Irish Government, and the European Union, for the peace process;

  • formally recognise that the citizenship rights set out in the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement will continue to be upheld;
  • agree to the continuation of PEACE funding to Northern Ireland and border counties of Ireland.

Section 2: Maintaining the Common Travel Area and associated rights The Common Travel Area and associated rights

For its part, the UK wants to continue to protect the CTA and associated reciprocal bilateral arrangements.

As a result of these historic arrangements, the reciprocal rights for UK and Irish nationals include: ● the right to enter and reside in each others’ state without being subject to a requirement to obtain permission; ● the right to work without being subject to a requirement to obtain permission; ● the right to study; ● access to social welfare entitlements and benefits; ● access to health services; and ● the right to vote in local and parliamentary elections

Wider questions about the UK’s future operation of its whole border and immigration controls for EEA nationals (other than Irish nationals) can only be addressed as part of the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and further highlights the need to move to this next phase of negotiations as quickly as possible.

Section 3: Avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods The goods border

It is also important to ensure that there is no return to a hard border as a result of any new controls placed on the movement of goods between the UK and the EU. This will require detailed engagement on customs, agriculture, and other relevant economic matters as negotiations progress. As a first step, the UK proposes agreeing principles and criteria against which to test potential models for the land border.

They do highlight the importance of the bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement that the UK has called for, and the need to press ahead with talks on our deep and special future partnership.

The nature of the border clearly means that we must aim for an agreed, reciprocal solution.

While agreeing that the solution for Northern Ireland cannot be based on any previous precedent, the UK also notes that there are a number of examples of where the EU has set aside the normal regulations and codes set out in EU law in order to recognise the circumstances of certain border areas.34 Devising a way forward on the Irish side of the land border will also require a flexible and imaginative approach that goes beyond current EU frameworks to achieve this.

A highly streamlined customs arrangement between the UK and the EU, streamlining and simplifying requirements, leaving as few additional requirements on UK-EU trade as possible. This would aim to: continue some of the existing agreements between the UK and the EU, put in place new negotiated facilitations to reduce and remove barriers to trade, and implement technology-based solutions to make it easier to comply with customs procedures. ● A new customs partnership with the EU, aligning our approach to the customs border in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border. One potential approach would involve the UK mirroring the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world where their final destination is the EU. This is of course unprecedented as an approach and could be challenging to implement so we will look to explore the principles of this with business and the EU.

One potential approach that the UK intends to explore further with the EU is a cross-border trade exemption that would recognise the unique economic, social and cultural context of the land border and the fact that many of the movements of goods across it by smaller traders cannot be properly categorised and treated as economically significant international trade. Such an exemption would ensure that smaller traders could continue to operate as they do now, with no new requirements in relation to customs processes. It is important to note that in 2015, over 80 per cent of North to South trade was carried out by micro, small and medium sized businesses.37 They are, in effect, examples of local trade in local markets

For those businesses not eligible for this exemption, the UK would explore with the EU how to ensure that administrative processes could be significantly streamlined. In our paper on future customs arrangements, the UK sets out the UK-EU wide option of negotiating mutual recognition of Authorised Economic Operators (AEOs), enabling faster clearance of AEO goods at the border. In relation to Northern Ireland and Ireland, the UK would want to explore even further streamlined processes for businesses, including for ‘trusted traders’ on either side of the border who did not qualify for the cross-border trade exemption. This could, for example, allow for simplified customs procedures, such as reduced declaration requirements and periodic payment of duty. The UK would test any new approach against our proposed principles above, including the essential aim of no physical infrastructure at the border.

It is important to note that North-South cooperation on agriculture has enabled the island of Ireland to be treated in policy and operational terms as a single epidemiological unit for the purposes of animal health and welfare. This highlights the importance of reaching a negotiated outcome consistent with the UK’s Article 50 letter and the European Council’s negotiating guidelines on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

Section 4: Aiming to preserve North-South and East-West cooperation, including for Energy

The UK proposes that the new framework relevant to the energy market in Northern Ireland and Ireland should: ● recognise the importance placed on cross-border cooperation in the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement, which provides for cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland (Strand 2), and the UK and Ireland (Strand 3); ● take account of the strategic importance to Northern Ireland and Ireland of maintaining affordable, secure, and sustainable supplies of electricity and gas for businesses and domestic consumers; ● facilitate the continuation of a single electricity market covering Northern Ireland and Ireland; ● facilitate the continuation of efficient electricity and gas interconnection between the island of Ireland and Great Britain; ● seek to provide certainty as soon as possible for citizens, investors, and businesses in Northern Ireland and Ireland on energy arrangements; and ● include an appropriate interim period to ensure that any changes to current arrangements can be implemented in a timely way. 72. In line with the importance that the UK places on continuing North-South cooperation, the principles proposed above specifically highlight the need to continue the operation of a single electricity market.

Next steps on the Northern Ireland and Ireland dialogue

The UK proposes that it should work intensively with the EU over the coming months to address the issues set out in this paper. Our view is that the UK and the EU start this process with complete alignment on our high level objectives and our strong support for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

In parallel with our discussions with the EU, the UK Government will continue to work closely with the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach agreement to form an Executive and re-establish a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. Devolved government is what the people of Northern Ireland have voted for and would strengthen Northern Ireland’s voice in the negotiations. Once there is a new Northern Ireland Executive in place, the UK Government will be providing regular briefings to the Executive. These will report progress on the specific issues covered in the Northern Ireland/Ireland dialogue. This could take place monthly in the context of the formal negotiating round structure agreed by the UK and the EU, and would be in addition to the routine engagement on broader EU exit and other 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

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