LONDON — U.K. officials are examining a “third way” customs plan which would involve EU border checks being carried out between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain instead of at the land border with the Republic.
The compromise plan is an attempt to square the circle of keeping the U.K. outside the EU customs union after Brexit — thus freeing Britain up to strike trade deals around the world — while avoiding the need for a hard border in Northern Ireland.
The U.K. and EU have agreed that the final Brexit deal must guarantee no return to a hard border in Ireland, but remain at loggerheads over how this will be achieved. The U.K. government has insisted that a comprehensive future trade and customs agreement — which will not be fully negotiated until after Britain has left the EU — will be able to solve the dilemma but is yet to agree what this relationship will look like.
According to two senior U.K. government figures briefed on the new proposal — one minister and one official — the scheme would involve Northern Irish ports being considered effectively as an entry point to the EU on goods for which the U.K. has agreed to align standards with the bloc.
It is a modification to the so-called “maximum facilitation” or “max fac” customs model favored by Brexiteers and being discussed by senior ministers. That model aims to use technology to avoid border checks on the Northern Ireland land border.
“Our only red line is that we are not treated any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom” — Arlene Foster, DUP leader
The compromise proposal would mean that goods shipped to Northern Ireland from mainland Britain after Brexit would be treated as if they were entering the EU at that point, thereby removing the need to check them again when they cross into the Republic.
If it proves acceptable to Brussels, the proposal would go some way to solving the Irish border impasse because it would negate the need for a hardening of the border in Northern Ireland — something both sides have said they want to avoid. But because it would create a de-facto customs border in the Irish Sea, it may prove to be political dynamite in Westminster.
U.K. officials familiar with the proposal insist Northern Irelands legal status within the United Kingdoms single market and customs union would not be affected by the plan. But they admit that the Democratic Unionist Party — whose MPs prop up Theresa Mays government in Westminster — could still reject it if they regard it as creating a special status for Northern Ireland.
In an interview Sunday with Skys Sophy Ridge program, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “Our only red line is that we are not treated any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, that there are no trade barriers put up between Northern Ireland and our biggest market which of course is Great Britain.” She added that any customs proposals would be judged on that basis.
Inside Whitehall the new proposal — which was originally developed by Northern Ireland civil servants — is known as “the channels model,” because it proposes creating two different channels at ports and airports for goods moving to and from Northern Ireland.
Theresa Mays inner Brexit “war Cabinet” will meet on Thursday to thrash out the governments position on outstanding issues in the proposed EU-U.K. withdrawal agreement.
To deal with accusations that the plan creates a border in the Irish Sea, a “green channel” would be established for goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Goods passing through it would not be delayed with checks.
However, goods coming from the mainland or the rest of the world would go through a “red channel” at Northern Irish ports and airports to check whether they comply with single market regulations.
This would mean that some goods — such as food or animals which might have different standards in the U.K. to the EU — could be blocked from entering Northern Ireland. This system already operates to some degree — farmers moving livestock between the mainland and Northern Ireland need licenses and have to go through border checks.
“Thats one of the things which is being looked at,” one senior government official said. “Its got the advantage of keeping checks to the absolute minimum, which is important for the DUP. But it would require the EU to accept that is a viable model. It is in the mix.”
Theresa Mays inner Brexit “war Cabinet” will meet on Thursday to thrash out the governments position on outstanding issues in the proposed EU-U.K. withdrawal agreement, including the Irish border issue. However, the committee will not discuss the long-term future customs arrangement the government wants to establish with the EU after Brexit, one senior official told POLITICO.
Senior Cabinet ministers are currently split between the max fac option and the so-called “customs partnership” under which the U.K. would collect tariffs on Brussels behalf but refund importers based on where the goods ended up.
One senior official described Theresa Mays favored customs proposal as “the bullshit king of cake and eat it.”
The new third way proposal is an attempt to answer the problems inherent in the max fac model. The model has been rejected by Brussels, which insists there is no technological solution which removes the need for border checks.
The customs partnership has been rejected by Brexiteers who fear it would tie the U.K. too closely to the EU. The model, which had been favored by Theresa May, has also been dismissed out of hand by the EU. One senior official described it as “the bullshit king of cake and eat it.”
A U.K. official said that while it was still officially under consideration by ministers, it was “as dead as a doornail.”