Brexit explainer: Why are border checks back in the news?
Tánaiste Simon Coveney says Johnson’s deal means checks on goods will be required
British prime minister Boris Johnson has been playing down the extent of checks needed. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Why has the issue of border checks on goods become controversial in the UK election debate?
Under the agreement hammered out in Brussels, Northern Ireland was to have a special position after Brexit, retaining the rules of the EU single market in a number of areas but remaining part of the UK customs territory. This was designed to avoid the need for physical infrastructure and controls at the Irish Border. However, how exactly it would operate was left to be worked out after Brexit takes place by a new joint committee. The issue that has become controversial is what checks and bureaucracy would be needed on goods going from Northern Ireland to Britain and vice versa. You won’t be surprised to hear that this isn’t straightforward.
How has it come up in the election?
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has been playing down the extent of the checks needed, saying on Sky at the weekend that there was “ no question” of checks being needed on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK before pulling back slightly in subsequent comments.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn produced documents from the UK treasury which pointed out that checks would be needed in some cases, as well as more form-filling by businesses – and also that much of this would depend on what future trade deal was completed between the EU and UK. In other words, Johnson was talking nonsense.
On Monday, Tánaiste Simon Coveney underlined that checks would be needed on goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland and that some bureaucracy would affect companies sending goods from the North to Britain, notably the need to file export declaration forms. The DUP has said that the deal is a betrayal by Johnson of previous commitments to Northern Ireland.
But it was surely clear from when the deal was done that some checks would be needed?
Yes. Goods coming from Britain into the North were always going to be subject to checks under the deal, even if the full workings of this were still to be agreed – and the EU side had promised to keep it to a minimum. The point is that if there was to be no need for checks at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, goods including food and animals would have to be checked at Northern Ireland ports and airports. This is to ensure customs rules were adhered to, including the necessary tariffs being paid, the origin of products confirmed and assurance that health and safety rules were fully met. Otherwise goods could enter the EU single market from the Britain – no longer a member of the EU – unchecked.
The requirement for goods going the other way from the North to the rest of the UK would be less – because the UK government has committed to not undertaking physical checks. But the North’s businesses would still have to fill out additional documentation, which would be costly for SMEs which account for two thirds of the the value of this trade. And the UK treasury document does raise the question of whether some physical checks might be needed.
There is this level of uncertainty because the withdrawal deal was changed quickly, late in the negotiations and there still isn’t full clarity about how it will work.
In the meantime, trade experts have pointed out the complications. One of the trickiest is that goods entering the North from the rest of the UK will be subject to whatever tariffs – or special import taxes – apply on goods entering the UK from the EU. Businesses in the North will be able to claim refunds on these tariffs, but how exactly this will all work has still to be decided – and administration will be complicated.
When does it need to be working by?
If the UK leaves under the withdrawal agreement, a transition period – when not much changes – is due to last until the end of 2020. It can be extended, though Johnson has said this won’t happen. So unless he does a U-turn, the new procedures on the North would need to be ready to go then. This is difficult, because at the same time the EU and UK will be trying to agree what trade arrangements will apply in the long term. And the shape of this wider deal will have a direct impact on the special arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The Conservatives have said they want to diverge from EU rules and do new trade deals with the US and others. This would make operating the new arrangements for the North all the more difficult. A move to a softer Brexit would remove some, though not all, of the complications.