EU and UK to consider technological solution to avoid Border backstop

Political declaration makes specific mention of protecting Dublin-Belfast train

Simon Carswell travels with truck driver Stephen Heasley to find out how post-Brexit customs checks could affect food supplies. Video: Simon Carswell

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The EU and UK have renewed their commitment to replace the “backstop” solution to avoid a hard border in future talks on a post-Brexit relationship.

Both sides said in a political declaration published today – which sets out a roadmap to guide negotiations on a trade deal – that they will consider “facilitative arrangements and technologies” in developing “alternative arrangements” to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland.

The inclusion of potential technological solutions to avoid infrastructure on the Border is a concession to the UK as British prime minister Theresa May tries to win over Eurosceptic Conservatives opposed to the “backstop” solution for the Border in the draft withdrawal agreement.

The draft Brexit treaty – the divorce deal setting out the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU in March – includes the fall-back “backstop” solution that would keep the UK as a whole in a customs territory with the EU with additional rules for Northern Ireland to maintain an invisible Irish border.

In the declaration, both sides “recall their determination that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing”.

The aspirational declaration is aimed at preparing the ground for talks on the future relationship between the EU and the UK in which both sides say they want a better solution to the Border issue.

Broadly, the document sets out hopes that both sides can agree “comprehensive arrangements” to create a “free trade area” for the free movement of goods across borders to avoid customs checks.

Trusted traders

In addition to technology solving border issues, the declaration outlines the intention of the EU and the UK to consider “mutual recognition of trusted traders’ programmes, administrative co-operation in customs matters and mutual assistance, including for the recovery of claims related to taxes and duties”.

Both sides also intend to consider the exchange of information “to combat customs fraud and other illegal activity”, according to the declaration.

“Such facilitative arrangements and technologies will also be considered in developing any alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing,” notes the document, in a reference to potential alternative solutions to the backstop.

The declaration commits to protect the Common Travel Area arrangements between the UK and Ireland that protect the free movement of people and special status social and political rights for people.

There is specific mention of protecting the operation of the Dublin-Belfast “Enterprise” train; the EU and UK say that there should be “bilateral arrangements” established for cross-Border rail services “to facilitate the continued smooth functioning and operation of rail services”.

There is a declaration to achieve “comprehensive, close, balanced and reciprocal law enforcement and judicial co-operation in criminal matters” taking into account “the geographic proximity” of the EU and UK and the “mutual benefits of the safety and security of their citizens”.

The EU and UK stress the importance of protecting the Northern Ireland peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement in the declaration affirming that the “achievements, benefits and commitments” of the peace process “will remain of paramount importance to peace, stability and reconciliation”.

The document recognises that the peace agreement “must be protected in all its parts” and that this extends to the “practical application” of the accord “on the island of Ireland and to the totality of the relationships set out in the 1998 agreement.”

Both sides recall their shared commitment to protect and maintain funding to peace programmes “to sustain work on reconciliation and a shared future in Northern Ireland.”

The declaration sets out the intention to allow British subjects to continue participating in EU programmes in areas including science and innovation, and youth, culture and education, which would cover the continued participation of Northern Irish students in the Erasmus exchange programme.

Other areas covered include overseas development and external action, and defence capabilities. There is a commitment in the agreement to continue “fair and appropriate financial contribution” to enable the “sound financial management” by the EU and UK on these areas of co-operation.

It is intended, under the terms of the declaration, that the future relationship will include dialogue between the EU and UK “at summit, ministerial and technical level, as well as at parliamentary level” and that both sides should encourage “civil society dialogue”.

Transition period

Meanwhile, the EU and the UK have agreed to put a time limit on any potential extension to the 21-month standstill transition period after Brexit comes into effect.

The revised agreement means that the extension must end on December 31st, 2022, which becomes the latest possible date that the so-called “backstop” solution to avoid a hard Irish border could come into effect.

The draft divorce deal agreed last week left the transition period open-ended to create flexibility for the EU and UK to agree a trade deal that might avoid using the contentious backstop.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to European Council president Donald Tusk on Thursday telling him that the EU and UK had agreed that the transition period could be extended for “up to one or two years” beyond the intended expiry date of December 31st, 2020.

Article 132 of last week’s draft agreement left the limit on an extension of the transition period as “31 December 20XX”.

The European Council of EU leaders will meet on Sunday for a special Brexit summit to sign off on the draft withdrawal agreement, sending it to the EU and UK parliaments to be voted on.

Under the agreement, the EU and UK can, through a joint committee made up of representatives from both, decide to extend the transition period if they submit a request before July 1st, 2020.

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