LONDON — The U.K. on Wednesday finally admitted there will be a post-Brexit trade border down the Irish Sea.
In its plan detailing how the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will function once the U.K. leaves the EU customs union, the U.K. government said there will be no “international border” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
That is a very different thing to a trade border — and showed the journey Britain has been on.
EU leaders had become increasingly frustrated at suggestions Britain was not taking seriously the scale of administration required to implement the Withdrawal Agreement Boris Johnson struck with Brussels last year. The deal will keep Northern Ireland in the customs union of both territories, in order to maintain an open border with the Republic of Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
It means Northern Ireland can reap the benefits of U.K. trade deals — a major argument for Brexit — but will have to comply with EU rules, placing a protective customs ring around the nation.
For many months, Johnson appeared unwilling to accept the full implications of what he had signed up for. The prime minister told Conservative members in November: “There will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to NI that are not going on to Ireland — that’s the whole point.”
He said that if any business is asked to fill in customs declaration paperwork, they should telephone him “and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin.”
The U.K. got out of that one by insisting all the paperwork will be digital.
The document published this afternoon said U.K. authorities will have to apply EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland, adding that it would entail “some new administrative process for traders, notably new electronic import declaration requirements, and safety and security information.”
It insisted there would be no new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland, before confirming that existing infrastructure for animal and food checks would be expanded to cope with the new workload. Livestock moves are already subject to checks, but food is not.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May, whose solution to the Irish border conundrum was to maintain EU customs rules and create a border down the Irish Sea, allowed herself an “I told you so” moment. During a Commons statement on the announcement, she asked Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove whether the U.K. will have to abide by EU regulations on some goods — possibly indefinitely.
Gove insisted the Northern Irish Assembly will have the chance to ditch the system in 2024, but admitted: “It is the case that there will be EU regulations … that will apply in Northern Ireland to 2024.”
The European Commission appeared satisfied with the plan. A spokesman said the proposal “provides a stable and lasting solution to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.” But officials in Brussels will study the document more closely to ensure it meets their demands on keeping the single market secure and respecting the Good Friday Agreement.
More to come
A lot of questions remain over the U.K. approach.
Britain said there will be no restrictions at all on trade moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. But the government will consult on how businesses will be deemed eligible for unfettered trade.
Goods heading to the EU through Northern Ireland or goods “at a clear and substantial risk of doing so” will have to pay tariffs before leaving Great Britain, where tariffs apply. But what constitutes a “substantial risk” is set to be clarified by the joint committee on the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes representatives from the U.K. government and the EU27.
Meanwhile, the exact processes for businesses — including the tariff compensation scheme for firms wrongly forced to pay duties — will also need to be laid out.
But the U.K. clearly took a step forward along its Brexit path with the publication of the plan, and it appears to have landed well in Brussels.
Even the Democratic Unionist Party, which threatened to bring down the government when May was in power rather than see a new border down the Irish Sea, accepted the fight had been lost.
Party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster welcomed elements of the proposal and called for assurance it would not in future “saddle individual Northern Ireland businesses with further costly administrative burdens.”