Brexit: Customs checks could be imposed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to avoid hard border, EU says

Michel Barnier said the plan would not infringe on 'the constitutional order of the UK'

Jon Stone
Wednesday 28 February 2018 13:36 GMT
Michel Barnier says Customs checks could be imposed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to avoid hard border

The UK could impose customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to solve the Brexit Irish border issue, the European Union’s chief negotiator has said.

Michel Barnier told reporters in Brussels he did not believe such checks would amount to a border across British territory, adding: “Somewhere in airports and ports there would be controls, but I would not refer to a border.”

Mr Barnier said the plan, a backstop for solving the issue of the Irish border if another solution cannot be found, would not infringe on “the constitutional or institutional order of the UK” – despite claims by Brexiteers it amounted to the EU “annexing” Northern Ireland.

The EU chief negotiator was speaking after the publication of a draft Brexit withdrawal treaty, drawn up by the EU to clarify the broad agreement reached by negotiators in December last year.

But speaking about the proposals at the same time in the House of Commons, Theresa May said that “no United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree” with putting barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, while Brexit Secretary David Davis said it would “undermine the UK common market and constitutional integrity of the UK”.

The draft text released by the EU calls for a “common regulatory area” on Ireland, effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union while the rest of the UK left.

The plan is likely to anger the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose votes the UK Government has been relying on for its governing majority since last year’s general election. The DUP is understood to have sank a previous plan in December after leader Arlene Foster told Ms May she would not support it.

But the EU claims the plan is not new and merely a formal interpretation of what Ms May agreed in broad terms when she struck a preliminary deal at the end of last year, to great fanfare.

“If we wish to make a success of these negotiations, and I certainly do, we must pick up the pace,” Mr Barnier told journalists.

“On 30 March 2019, in 13 months, the UK will no longer be a member state of the European Union. On that day we need to have organised this withdrawal in an orderly fashion.

“I think now what we need to do is negotiate on the basis of a text, because time is short between today and the autumn of this year, which is when we need to conclude a final agreement based on this draft agreement.”

The plan to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market would only come into effect if the UK cannot come up with another way of solving the border issue.

The draft withdrawal treaty says this could either be resolved by the UK negotiating a trade deal that removed the need for a hard border, or with another specific solution. Mr Barnier said he expected the Prime Minister to come up with a specific solution in a speech planned later this week.

Theresa May says 'no Prime Minister would ever agree' to EU’s proposal for Northern Ireland to remain aligned with the Republic after Brexit

Asked about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, Mr Barnier said he was only negotiating with the British Government, but added: “That offers a significant part of the solution for Ireland and [then] it’s a question of regulatory alignment.”

Writing to Conservative MPs after the publication of the EU's draft, the Brexit Secretary Mr Davis said that while the UK was committed to what it had pledged in December, it would do so “avoiding any borders within our United Kingdom”.

“The draft legal text that the Commission have published today would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea,” he told his colleagues.

Boris Johnson was last night reported to have told Ms May that it was “wrong” for the Government to prioritise preventing a hard border – echoing sentiment from some hardline Brexiteers. Downing Street today however said it was still committed to avoiding such a frontier.

The joint text agreed in December says the UK has a “commitment to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”.

But it also said that “in all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market” – potentially ruling out checks between NI and the rest of the UK.

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