The United Kingdom said on Wednesday that its Brexit divorce deal would require no new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland. The announcement came as the UK unveiled a proposal for how the border with the province could work in 2021, when the status quo transition period ends with the European Union.
The UK left the EU in January and has until the end of this year to negotiate an agreement on future ties or start 2021 without a trade agreement, which some businesses say could cause costly delays and confusion at borders.
Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but shares a land border with EU member the Republic of Ireland, hampered any agreement between Britain and the bloc until late last year, when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a so-called protocol.
The EU says the protocol requires strict customs checks and tariffs on some goods coming from mainland Britain into the province in case they are headed onwards into Ireland and the bloc’s single market.
But before December’s election, Johnson told businesses in Northern Ireland that there would be no barriers in the Irish Sea and that they could put any customs declarations “in the bin”.
In its proposals for how the protocol would operate, the UK said Northern Ireland would remain part of its customs territory and businesses would have unfettered access to the rest of the UK.
However, the government added traders would face “some limited additional process on goods arriving in Northern Ireland” from mainland Britain.
There will be tariffs levied on goods entering the province from the rest of the UK, but only if they are destined for Ireland or beyond or “at clear and substantial risk of doing so”, the protocol plans said.
The government said there would be no new customs infrastructure, but said accepting some existing checkpoints for agri-food would need to be expanded.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove said such checks would be “as light touch as possible”.
The aim of the protocol was to ensure no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, seen as key to avoiding an undermining of a 1998 peace accord which largely ended three decades of sectarian and political conflict.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney later on Wednesday said the UK’s proposal that there is no need for new customs infrastructure will be met with scepticism in the EU.
“There is going to need to be a lot of technical discussion around the commitments that were made in this plan today. It’s quite straightforward in relation to things like live animals, but I think the really tricky area will be around customs,” Coveney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.
“I think there will be a lot of sceptical people in the EU when they hear the British government say there will be no new physical infrastructure around customs in Northern Ireland or in Great Britain facing Northern Ireland,” he added, saying the proposal was nevertheless a step forward.