New border controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain included in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal should not be implemented because they will undermine support for the agreement among unionists, the UK government has said.
Michael Gove, who is overseeing the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, told MPs that the EU’s “maximalist” interpretation of the agreement – signed by the prime minister in January – would be unsustainable.
“The argument we’re making to the EU as well is if you insist on significant new infrastructure and a significant new presence what you will do is actually make the protocol less acceptable to the majority community in Northern Ireland and therefore you run the risk of the protocol being voted down in a future election,” Mr Gove told the Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee.
“If you want to genuinely, as you say, help people in Northern Ireland then you’ll go with the approach in our command paper.”
The cabinet office minister argued that “the really important thing in Northern Ireland is not adherence to a maximalist approach towards a protocol” but rather “respecting the fact that Northern Ireland has said again and again that we are part of the United Kingdom”.
While the UK government accepts that goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to new controls, it disputes whether businesses moving goods in the opposite direction across the Irish sea should have to fill in “exit summary declarations” as envisaged by the withdrawal agreement.
While the deal was signed at the beginning of this year, its exact implementation is being decided at a joint committee of EU and UK officials, with Mr Gove heading the UK delegation.
A UK “command paper” spelling out Britain’s plans to implement the deal was met with scepticism in Brussels.
Michel Barnier said earlier this month that the EU would insist on the checks, telling reporters: “Some of the objectives set out in this command paper – such as avoiding exit declarations on goods moving from NI to GB – are incompatible with the legal commitments accepted by the UK in the protocol.”
One EU official told The Independent: “Exit declarations are required and it’s not just the Commission who says that, it’s the withdrawal agreement that says that.”
A leaked Treasury analysis made public by Labour during the December 2019 election campaign showed that parts of the UK government also believed that declarations were required at the time.
The EU says the checks are needed to fulfil World Trade Organisation rules and for data collection, while concerns have also been raised about opportunities for smuggling into the UK.
Meanwhile the government is readying plans to use a “shock and awe” advertising campaign to prepare businesses and the public for the end of the transition period in December.
A tender document first reported by the website Politico shows that ministers are preparing a massive information campaign “to warn the public about the “consequences of not taking action”.
Speaking at the same committee appearance and asked about the planned campaign, Mr Gove said: “I haven’t seen that phrase before until it was reported on a particular website.
“The key thing is whatever the phraseology that may have been used by whoever was drawing up that document or whatever was intended by it, I would say businesses across the United Kingdom have to prepare for our exit from the single market and the customs union overall.
“It is often the case when government is contracting with outside agencies on communications campaigns that they will use language that communications specialists and advertising agencies will themselves use ... I have not had sight of that document.:
He added that the lack of preparation by businesses so far “doesn’t surprise me” but “does concern me”.
“One of the reasons we do believe that it’s necessary to have information campaign is to make sure that people are ready for both the challenges and the opportunities that exist as we prepare for life outside the customs union and single market,” he said.
The cabinet office minister added: “The other thing that I should stress is that one of the reasons for our communications campaign is to emphasise that whether we secure a free trade agreement with the EU or not we will be out of the single market and customs union come what may.
“The difference between what has been termed a Canada-style deal and what many have called an Australian-style approach [no deal] in many respects for businesses the difference in terms of preparation is not that great.”
Turning to talk for a Brexit trade deal, Mr Gove also warned that if no deal was in sight by October talks might have to be called off.
“The thing that I would say more broadly is that we don’t have a day per see pencilled in but it is the case that if we haven’t secured significant progress by October then it will be difficult. But again, you know it when you see it,” he told the Committee.
“I would hope that we would have clarity beforehand but it becomes increasingly difficult if we’re not on a trajectory for an agreement to ensure that that free trade agreement could be concluded, if we haven’t secured agreement by October.”
Both sides pledges to intensify trade talks over the coming months after the first half of the year resulted in little if any progress.
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