The United Kingdom has explicitly ruled out any Brexit that would involve a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
In doing so it has made clear that London is not prepared to explore the treatment of Northern Ireland as a separate entity, subject to separate rules, or for it to remain part of the customs union or single market, as some politicians North and South have urged.
The UK on Wednesday published its position paper on the post-Brexit arrangements for the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic ahead of the August negotiating round with the European Union.
“The UK has been clear that avoiding a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is one of our top priorities,”the paper from the Department for Exiting the EU says.
“But the answer as to how to achieve this cannot be to impose a customs border between northern Ireland and Great Britain, and we believe our position on this is widely shared.”
Central to the paper is the determination that there will be no physical infrastructure on the Irish Border. That would be achieved, the UK argues, through a commitment to preserving the Common Travel Area, facilitating the free movement of people, the adoption of technological solutions and customs exemptions to facilitate the streamlining of the trade in goods.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Ireland will be "stubborn" in Brexit negotiations when defending Irish interests. Mr Coveney dismissed some of British customs proposals as "totally unworkable" but welcomed the commitment to upholding the Belfast Agreement, the Common Travel Area and other elements of the papers. The DUP has described the British government's proposals t as "constructive" while Sinn Féin said the British "Northern Ireland and Ireland" Brexit position paper was "delusional" and "big on rhetoric but thin on actual commitments".
On Tuesday a separate UK paper outlined a new proposed “customs partnership” involving an “ongoing” commitment by the UK to EU agricultural and food standards that could obviate the need for Border checks on food and animals.
The British are proposing a future customs arrangement which would see 80 per cent of businesses on the island entirely exempt from any new tariffs post-Brexit.The exemption would apply to small and medium-sized enterprises involved in localised cross-border trade. In respect of larger companies engaged in international trade, the British government paper proposes they could adhere to any new customs regime by completing retrospective declarations either online or at their premises.
Officials concede that the proposals could be open to fraud — with Great Britain or continental European-based companies using Irish business counterparts to avoid tariffs — but they believe those risks can be managed effectively.
The need to work on “imaginative and flexible” approaches to the Border issue is stressed, and Wednesday’s paper notes that any seamless Border will require decisions by the Republic for its side, and approaches that “go beyond current EU frameworks.”
The Border document acknowledges the EU will have to sign up to the UK’s vision of a post-Brexit border and there has already been scepticism in Brussels at the viability of London’s wider post-Brexit customs proposals.
The UK wants to discuss what it calls a number of “high-level” political principles in this regard in the first phase of the talks, the withdrawal agreement, resuming on September 28th. To date, there seemed to have been a broad consensus that trade issues would be a matter dealt with only in the second-phase talks on the future relations between the UK and the EU.
The paper insists that the UK, EU and Ireland are in broad agreement: “It is clear that our high level objectives are wholly aligned with regards to avoiding a hard Border, maintaining the Common Travel Area, and associated arrangements, and upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.”
Where the respective parties diverge, however, is in their assessments of how realisable the UK objectives are, most notably on the free movement of goods.
The UK recommits itself wholeheartedly to the Belfast Agreement “in all of its parts” – a formula that will be welcome in Dublin - and to the continuation of cross-Border co-operation and institutions arising from it.
“Although the Belfast Agreement is not predicated on EU membership,” the paper says, “the UK is clear that it must be considered and safeguarded throughout the exit process as a whole and in its parts.”
The paper accepts the Irish case that the agreement copperfastens peace through not only agreed political institutions, like the North-South Ministerial Council and various implementation bodies, but in sustaining economic progress. It reiterates a commitment to the Agreement’s provisions for Northern Ireland citizens to claim Irish and hence EU citizenship.