Brexit solution that avoids hard Border is possible, says James Wharton

Keeping North within customs union irreconcilable with UK position, says ex-minister

A truck passes a Brexit billboard in Jonesborough, Co Armagh, on the northern side of the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Photograph: PA Wire

A truck passes a Brexit billboard in Jonesborough, Co Armagh, on the northern side of the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Photograph: PA Wire


Keeping the North within the European customs union after Brexit is irreconcilable with the UK government’s position, former MP and Tory party minister James Wharton has said.

The man credited with starting the process that led to the UK’s referendum on EU membership said, however, this did not mean there had to be a hard border in Ireland.

“There is an assumption that things are black and white. My experience of nearly all politics is that it involves compromise,” he told The Irish Times.

“So if you said, literally, there are only two options: you’re either in the customs union or completely out, or you’re either in the single market or completely out, then you’d only have one of two choices.

“The reality is that people find compromise and areas of agreement and both sides want to agree on this,” he said.

Mr Wharton, formerly the UK’s international development minister, lost his seat in the recent snap election but now works as a consultant for Irish public relations firm Hume Brophy.


He said it was as reasonable to suggest that, to protect cross-Border trade, the Republic should also leave the customs union as it was to insist that the UK should stay inside it.

“If you want to take the position that the UK should stay in the single market and the customs union as it is – if it’s so important, the UK should say then the Republic of Ireland should come out.”

The avoidance of “regulatory divergence” on the island of Ireland – interpreted by many as keeping Northern Ireland within the customs union – underpinned December’s agreement between the EU and UK.

However, the “bulletproof” backstop plan, heralded by the Irish Government as a major breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations, may now be omitted from the final withdrawal agreement, according to recent UK media reports.

First mover

Mr Wharton, who moved the first Bill in the House of Commons calling for a vote on EU membership back in 2013, said he believed what people perceive as a hard Border could be avoided. “It may require the use of technology, it may also require some flexibility in terms of the EU’s relationship with the UK and single market access and customs union exemption.”

“I’m sure it’s possible but that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed, but what is almost certain though is that the UK is leaving the single market and the customs union,” he said. “We now need to work together to resolve the issues that this throws up.”

Mr Wharton said while the Brexit referendum did specify the UK’s future relationship with the EU “there were some policy areas that were very clear, including the control of immigration and the capacity to sign trade agreements across the world”.

He said there was a broad consensus of opinion in the UK, which crossed both sides of the debate, that Brexit required not just the leaving of the EU but also leaving of the single market and the customs union.

Mr Wharton played down the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, suggesting the March 2019 deadline for securing an exit deal would be pushed back as part of the transition arrangement.

“At the moment the time pressure probably suits all sides as it makes people buckle down and take difficult decisions,” he said. “Next March, the UK will legally leave the EU but I suspect we won’t see the impact of that for another two years.”