May’s Border promises are ‘nice words’, says ex-EU customs head

Former official insists official customs controls will be unavoidable after Brexit

Theresa May's promises of a frictionless Border are "nice words", the former head of the European Commission's customs procedures has told MPs. Michael Lux told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that customs controls on the Border will be unavoidable if the United Kingdom leaves the EU customs union after Brexit.

“These are nice words, ‘a seamless flow of goods’. I have used them too in Commission communications on the customs code. But what does that mean? If Northern Ireland is not part of the EU customs territory, then there is a customs border,” he said.

“For commercial trade, there are customs formalities. So you cannot say that the situation will be the same as before. OK, the prime minister didn’t say that either. I think what she meant was to keep the burden of customs clearance as small as possible.”

Mr Lux, a former German customs official who now advises businesses on customs issues, said that Britain could choose not to impose customs controls on the Border but that the Republic had no such option.

“If you feel that you don’t need to control the goods which are entering Northern Ireland and if you don’t feel you have to recover VAT and customs duties and excise duties, you are of course free not to do that. But Ireland is obliged to do this,” he said.

“If Northern Ireland is no longer part of the EU customs union, then this is an official customs border of the EU and then Ireland is obliged to apply all these rules.”

If Irish authorities systematically ignored the policing of the customs border, the Government could face an infringement procedure in Brussels, he said. And he said there was no question of a bilateral customs deal between Britain and Ireland.

"Ireland is not entitled to make agreements on customs issues. This is an exclusive competence of the European Union. So Ireland can make proposals to the EU negotiator, which is the European Commission, of how the future agreement should look like," he said.

Expensive formalities

Campaigners for Brexit, including DUP leader Arlene Foster, claimed during the referendum campaign that technology could ensure the seamless movement of goods across the Border. Mr Lux said that existing technology could reduce the time needed for customs controls but the formalities involved would still be expensive for companies.

Questioned by SDLP MP Alasdair McDonnell about the impact on food processing, which can involve milk crossing the border a number of times, Mr Lux said that each crossing would require a customs declaration.

“I always say to companies they need at least two people doing the customs business if you do it yourself because one of them may be ill or on holiday and then you have nobody to do it. Or you use a service provider, which is a logistics company. Depending on the complexity, they charge you between, let’s say €20 and €80 per declaration. So the cost will increase enormously due to the fact that each time you’re doing something which involves crossing the border, it creates a cost,” he said.

Mr Lux said that, under EU customs rules, dogs and horses crossing the customs border would require special documentation, even if they were moving within a farm that straddled the Border. He said it might be possible for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs union for a transitional period after Brexit. But that would necessitate customs controls between Northern Ireland and Britain.