Adam Johnson, director of Leeds-based Tudor International Freight, says Boris Johnson’s package of proposals for replacing the so-called Irish backstop was never likely to be agreed by the EU.
Johnson was reacting to reports that the bloc had rejected the government’s alternative framework, revealed on 2 October.
He explained the backstop was the element of the current draft withdrawal agreement that would effectively keep the whole UK in the EU’s customs union temporarily after Brexit, which the Prime Minister insists will occur on 31 October, whether a deal has been agreed or not. He said the backstop mattered greatly to businesses across the UK, as it had been the main cause of the draft agreement’s decisive rejection three times by MPs.
Mr Johnson said the backstop’s aims were avoiding a hard border in Ireland, protecting the all-island economy, preserving the north-south co-operation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market and customs union. He said it was hard to see how the government’s package would have met the EU’s requirement that any replacement mechanism must be legally operable and meet all these objectives.
He said: “The Prime Minister’s suggestions included that Northern Ireland, unlike Britain, should effectively remain in the EU’s single market for all goods, to ease its trade with the republic, which receives a third of its exports of this type and will remain a bloc member. But he also proposed the province should leave the EU customs union, with the rest of the UK, at the end of the envisaged post-Brexit 14-month transition period. His ideas would therefore have effectively created two borders - a regulatory frontier in the Irish Sea and one for customs within Ireland.
“Another problem was the Prime Minister had stipulated this continued single market alignment would, in practice, have been subject to a veto before the outset and then every four years by the Democratic Unionist Party. They ideally want Northern Ireland to operate in the same way as the rest of the UK and were the only major political grouping there to oppose the Good Friday agreement or favour Brexit, which was decisively rejected by the province’s voters in the 2016 referendum.”
Mr Johnson said it was also hard to see how the Prime Minister’s ideas could have avoided disrupting the all-Ireland economy by creating a hard customs border.
He said the government had argued this could be escaped through devices such as electric paperwork and physical checks taking place away from the frontier, at sites such as traders’ premises and what it termed “other designated locations”, which apparently meant customs clearance sites.
Mr Johnson added, however: “There’s a widespread view among experts that the necessary technology is still several years away, so there’s currently no border in the world between different customs jurisdictions which doesn’t have infrastructure and the UK has yet to produce workable, detailed proposals itemising how its absence can be achieved.
“Another problem was these government suggestions would have required the Common Transit Convention, which demands physical infrastructure for checking documents and goods, to be renegotiated and implied significant UK exemptions or derogation from the Union Customs Code. The EU had previously opposed both steps, partly as they would set precedents which other outside countries could try to follow.”
Mr Johnson said the Prime Minister had also proposed the EU should have promised now never to conduct checks at the Irish border. This was unrealistic, as the DUP could have vetoed the single market alignment and the government had suggested the UK and the bloc would only put in place changes to customs rules and procedures during the transition period, which may never have been agreed, for example.
He said: “Another likely issue for the EU was the government’s proposals effectively sought to separate its regulatory and customs systems.”
Mr Johnson said the government’s proposed exemptions from customs procedures and duty payments for Northern Ireland’s small businesses would potentially have opened the door to fraud and smuggling – as would its idea of the province effectively leaving the EU’s VAT regime, which would also apparently have demanded checks and payments at the border. In addition, the suggested small business exemptions seemed to invite larger companies to take advantage by breaking themselves up and assume that every risk associated with waiving these requirements was posed by bigger enterprises.
He said: “Overall, the measures were never likely to have been acceptable to the EU and would have led to burdensome administration and checks, as well as tariffs, for Northern Irish businesses. These would have made them less competitive, potentially leading to redundancies and bankruptcies, as companies in the republic cut them from their supply chains, for example.”