Britain said it wants to avoid any physical border or customs checks with Ireland as part of any Brexit deal with the European Union, as tensions mount over the terms of the U.K.’s departure from the bloc.
British and European negotiators need to show “flexibility and imagination” to devise post-Brexit arrangements on the island of Ireland that preserve free movement of people and goods across the border, the Brexit Department said. The U.K. government is due to publish a document fleshing out its proposals at noon on Wednesday in London.
“The solution cannot be based on a precedent,” the department said. “But it’s right that as we shape the unprecedented model, we have some very clear principles. Top of our list is to agree upfront no physical border infrastructure — that would mean a return to the border posts of the past and is completely unacceptable to the U.K.”
The 310-mile (500-kilometer) crossing will form the bloc’s only land border with the U.K. after Brexit and it’s shaping up to be one of the trickiest parts of the talks. While both sides want to avoid obstacles to trade, Britain’s desire to leave the EU’s customs union makes that tough. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has warned that he won’t help the U.K. set up border checks and ordered officials to scale back examining technological solutions to minimize disruption along the frontier.
The final shape of the border will depend on the deal the U.K. reaches with the EU on its future trading relations. Under one proposal advanced by the U.K. on Tuesday, called a “new customs partnership with the EU,” a customs border wouldn’t be needed because each side would enforce the other’s customs rules. This would satisfy Ireland’s demand to maintain the current situation.
Under a second suggestion, dubbed “a highly streamlined customs arrangement,” Britain would extend customs declaration requirements currently in place for other nations to EU trade. The document “dismisses the idea of a customs border in Irish Sea as not constitutionally or economically viable,” the Brexit Department said.
The U.K. will propose:
- Remaining a member of the Common Transit Convention to facilitate the movement of goods
- New “trusted trader” arrangements would facilitate trade for larger companies, while smaller ones, accounting for more than 80 percent of cross-border trade, would be exempt from customs processes
The U.K. bounced the border question back to the EU, saying it now “looked forward to seeing the EU’s position paper on Ireland.” The border is one of three key issues, along with citizens’ rights and money owed by the U.K., that require “sufficient progress” toward a resolution during the Brexit negotiations before the EU will allow talks to move on to Britain’s future relationship with the bloc.
The Northern Ireland peace agreement “must not become a bargaining chip” in Brexit negotiations, the Irish government said in an emailed statement. The statement added that Ireland “welcomes” the U.K. emphasis on a common travel area, maintaining the peace agreement and avoiding a so-called hard border.
Businesses both north and south of the border in Ireland have been calling for clarity on the border issue. The Confederation of British Industry said ahead of the release of the government’s full paper on Wednesday that “firms are making long-term investment decisions now and need to see much more detail from these papers.”
The EU and the U.K. will seek to agree on broad principles on the issue in coming months to prevent the search for a solution holding up the wider Brexit talks, according to four officials familiar with the matter.
The principles will go a little further than the negotiating directives published by the EU in May, and could refer to the special circumstances facing Northern Ireland as a result of the U.K.’s decision to exit the bloc, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks.
The possible return of security and customs checks on the frontier has raised the specter of a return to the violence which blighted Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s, claiming more than 3,000 lives. Border checks largely melted way after a peace agreement in the 1990s, and the Irish government estimates cross-border trade is worth more than 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion) per year. Disrupting that could have a devastating impact on the economy on both sides of the crossing.
If the U.K. wants to “put forward smart solutions, technological solutions for borders of the future and all of that, that’s up to them,” Varadkar said last month. Ireland will not “design a border for the Brexiteers.”
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