Government rejects British proposals on invisible border

Proposed measures to deal with the customs issue were insufficient, says Taoiseach

Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire,  in Dublin. Photograph:   Julien Behal

Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, in Dublin. Photograph: Julien Behal


The Government has dismissed British proposals to avoid a customs border on the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the European Union.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney yesterday said the proposed measures to deal with the issue of a customs border, formally tabled last week, were insufficient.

However, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire suggested that exemptions from customs duties for 80 per cent of business and digital and online declarations could eliminate any need for such a border.

Speaking to The Irish Times during a visit to Dublin to meet a number of Government Ministers, Mr Brokenshire said that if the EU agrees, most businesses could be exempted from customs duties introduced after the UK leaves the EU’s customs union.

“So much of this is defined as international trade but actually is about small and medium-sized enterprises operating within very localised geographical markets,” Mr Brokenshire said.

Exemptions from any tariffs introduced when the UK leaves the customs union “can actually deal with a lot of this”. Recognising some businesses as “trusted traders” and “authorised economic operators” would provide “a means and mechanism to avoid the outcome that everyone wants to avoid”, he said.

However, the Taoiseach said there was a need for more clarity from the British, suggesting that the UK appeared to be trying to hold on to the benefits of the customs union and the single market, despite leaving the EU.

‘We are leaving the EU’

Mr Brokenshire declined to be drawn on the Taoiseach’s criticisms, but insisted that the British proposals were a basis for progress in the Brexit negotiations. And he dismissed suggestions from the Irish Government that the British may ultimately remain in the customs union.

“The reality is that we are leaving the EU. Therefore the consequence of that is that we leave the customs union and the single market. We then have to negotiate our new arrangements as a country outside the EU with our EU partners,” he said.

“The clear point that was made at the time was that the UK would become a sovereign nation, that it would be able to make its own laws and be able to reach new agreements with international partners around the globe.”

Mr Coveney also said that the British government should not use the border issue, “as a pawn to try to pressurise for broader trade agreements” in its negotiations with the EU.

Tension and frustration

Yesterday’s meetings in Dublin, and the Taoiseach’s comments in Toronto, Canada, demonstrated the continuing tensions between the two Governments on the Brexit issue, with frustration in Dublin at the lack of clarity from the British side about its ultimate intentions in the Brexit negotiations clearly evident.

The Government is unconvinced by constant assurances from London that ensuring there is no border is a top priority for the British in the talks, while there is also considerable frustration with the British amongst other EU countries.

However, the two governments are also united on other issues.

Speaking after his meeting with Mr Brokenshire, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan warned against using the Brexit issue as a “Trojan horse for a United Ireland”, a thinly veiled attack on Sinn Féin.

Both Mr Coveney and Mr Brokenshire will meet the Northern parties next week in a bid to relaunch talks in Stormont on reviving the power-sharing institutions.