Brexiteer border plan is not a game changer, nor a government wrecker for the DUP

Will Arlene Foster proclaim the merits of the Brexiteer European Research Group’s plan for the border when she meets Theresa May?  She will come under immediate pressure to give her verdict – for or against the Chequers plan on which May refuses to compromise; or in favour of the ERG’s?

Nigel Dodds has declared the plan which is rival to the prime minister’s plan “positive and timely.” But is this an implied  threat to withdraw support from the government? It  doesn’t  look like an issue of confidence to me. Although they’re not without qualms, the  DUP  don’t seem to regard Chequers as a violation of their agreement with the Conservatives. It also seems that the prospect of customs checks 2o miles of so from Cairnryan or Larne as  implied by the  ERG’s support for the Dutch model doesn’t constitute a border down the Irish Sea.  We could do with more clarity;  but this is not the plan that will bring the government down or  kill Chequers off. Indeed, the outside verdict is that there’s little if anything that’s new.

The ERG  ridicule the very idea of the backstop. Their  main aim, shared ironically by Barnier, is to de-dramatise the border as a crunch issue for the whole Brexit project and  dismiss the notion of  NI – or even the whole  UK –   being forced  to remain within the ambit of the customs union for  years.

My guess is Foster will temporise and delay, and regard the ERG plan as a fallback even though it could come too late to prevent a no deal. In truth the ERG plan differs little in substance from the government’s approach. It simply asserts that association with the single market and customs union isn’t necessary to keep the border open and  institutes an unobtrusive regime of checks. The government’s “facilitated customs arrangement” is an only slightly more elaborate answer to the same problem.   However as the Guardian’s crib spells out, quite a lot of  their ideas have been turned down by the EU already.

 

The text of the ERG plan is available via Guido no less.  The Guardian’s summary follows.

 

The issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been allowed to frame the Brexit negotiations. Both the UK and the European Union have committed to introduce no new physical infrastructure. There is, at present, a border between the two countries for tax, VAT, currency, excise and security; these are managed using technologies without infrastructure at the physical border.

The key obstacle in the negotiations is the EU’s concern that goods could enter into the single market area through the Irish border without being compliant with EU standards or tariffs. The question for the EU is whether this risk to the integrity of the single market is so serious that it could block a free trade agreement with the UK.

It is in the interest of all parties to ensure that this is resolved as easily as possible and that the current border arrangements are modified to deal with the necessary extra checks. Both the CEO of HMRC and the head of Irish Revenue have confirmed that there will be no need for new customs facilities on the border to make this happen.

The checks that are required post-Brexit to retain the integrity of the EU single market and customs union include customs declarations, declarations of origin,sanitary and phytosanitary checks and checks on product compliance.

Cross-border trade on the island of Ireland is mostly comprised of regular shipments of the same goods. This repetitive trade is well suited to established technical solutions and simplified customs procedures already available in the Union customs code.

Larger companies may take advantage of trusted trader-type schemes. This status provides assurance of a high degree of compliance and hence entitles the bearer to simplified procedures.

For all companies, the requirements for additional declarations can be incorporated into the existing system used for VAT returns. Licensed customs brokers can be engaged to support businesses in dealing with rules of origin and customs arrangements.

For agricultural products, the government should agree equivalence of UK and EU regulations and conformity assessment. Since UK and EU standards are identical and will remain identical at the point of departure, determining equivalence after Brexit should be straightforward. The current smooth movement of agricultural products across the Irish border, without the need for border inspection posts, can be continued by maintaining the island of Ireland as a common biosecurity zone.

The proposals set out below can be realised within the existing legal and operational frameworks of the EU and the UK, based on the mutual trust on which regular trade depends. Any risk of fraud or smuggling can be addressed by effective co-operation by authorities on both sides of the border, as already occurs with smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, fuel and alcohol.

Such measures can ensure that the trade across the Irish border is maintained. They do nothing to alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, and do not violate the principle of consent enshrined in the Belfast Agreement. The integrity of the EU single market is safeguarded. The UK and the EU would be free to conclude a far-reaching free trade agreement.

Harnessing the latest developments in international best practice can deliver continued cooperation and prosperity in the best interests of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

The chairman of the group and the meeting  Jacob Rees Mogg said there is an “iron focus” in the paper on meeting the EU’s concerns. “It is not a UK wishlist. It looks at EU precedent and EU law”.

This was the Dutch model commended by the group.

Hans Maessen, a Dutch customs expert said  tariffs should not be an issue. There is already a VAT clearance system in place. That could continue. But if the EU were not to agree, another system is available that could allow firms to make VAT declarations.

Firms with turnovers below £85,000 are exempt anyway.

Theresa May’s plan, a facilitated customs arrangement, does not cover VAT. He asked the government about this, he says, and they said they would come back to him.

And, turning to regulations, the third issue that needs to be addressed, he says the UK and the EU would start with regulatory alignment.

There would be a need for veterinary-style checks, he says. But they would not have to be conducted at the border. So you could have a drive-through border. Veterinary goods inspections in Holland are scattered within 20 miles of Rotterdam.

David Trimble, part of the ERG line up, stuck to the constitution and security in  the only comment on Michel Barnier  that was less than courteous.

(Barnier was) completely wrong to claim that Brexit  interferes with the Belfast Agreement or cause a reversion to violence. Barnier and Brussels suggest that Northern Ireland should be taken out of the United Kingdom in relation to trade. If anything could lead to instability, this is it.

 

Later, Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard, said it showed “again that the Tories do not care about Ireland or the effects that any Brexit deal will have on the Irish people”.

“They are not designed to offer a solution but result from the civil war raging internally within the British Conservative Party..

“These proposals are a rehash of the unacceptable and already rejected and failed notion that a technological border can be put imposed post Brexit. They are pure fantasy with no attempt to set out how they can actually be achieved.

“It is interesting but not surprising to note that there is absolutely no reference to rights, to freedom of movement or to the role of the European Court of Justice in these proposals.”

Brexiteer grandees attending such as David Davis were at pains to deny  they were supporting a coup against Theresa May, although Davis stressed his support for her was “ not unconditional. “ With the Research Group  having abandoned their original intention to publish a comprehensive alternative to the Chequers plan they loathe, there’s a feeling that the tide has gone out for them.  But of course it could come back in again.

 

 

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