The Government and the EU should respond to Parliament’s will
A simple solution to streamlining customs and regulatory checks, in Ireland and across the Channel, is in reach. What we need is the political will, says Marcus Fysh
The Commons heavily defeated the EU’s Withdrawal Agreement proposal last month, then showed a clear majority for something similar – but only if the “backstop” Northern Ireland protocol could be replaced with a suitable alternative. Such was set out in the snappily named “Malthouse Compromise” on which the Commons majority depended. This plan therefore needs reasoned examination, and to be formally and properly put to the EU by mid-February so they have time to approve it by the end of March.
Simplified inland clearance procedure, as per current EU law, can be the basis of alternative arrangements as per the “Malthouse Compromise” that ensure no hard border in the island of Ireland after March, whether or not there is a deal, as well as speeding cross-Channel trade. Contrary to the assertions of many on the topic, this does not rely on technology, whether existing or untried. Neither does it require infrastructure on the border or elsewhere. Risk-assessed customs and regulatory checks can take place in premises and in market, in a way similar to current investigations of excise and VAT.
The EU’s regulation of Border Inspection Posts to check phytosanitary and veterinary goods “in the vicinity of the border” allows special arrangements in unusual geographic situations. The EU Commission briefed the “No Deal Preparation” Committee of the French Assemblé National in December that they will be lenient at Calais, for example with regard to location of checks on goods which are not live animals, in the context of high UK standards that will exist as we leave the EU. This will allow them to be checked at some distance from the border itself and there is no reason such leniency should not apply in Ireland too.
In the island of Ireland there is already a single epidemiological area, so there are options not to have to check live animals as they travel. As part of a cooperation agreement between the UK and EU which could help the EU ensure the integrity of its market, Irish vets could potentially be given access to establishments in Northern Ireland so as to check veterinary and phytosanitary standards, before food products move, and goods intended for the Irish market from GB could be checked at exit from GB ports or during the sea crossing.
The TRACES system which tracks items through the food supply chain inside and outside the EU can be used to flag goods in future if there is significant divergence that requires it and is an example of how trade-related declarations and certificates are already required within the EU.
On the customs front, with even a basic Free Trade Agreement, businesses would only have to be concerned with declarations of the type of goods and their origin. With or without such, local or intraday traffic within 20kms of the border could be exempt if the EU or UK chose to use “frontier traffic” exceptions available under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
If there is a need to collect tariffs (and there may not be for a time, even without the above if the EU or UK chose temporarily to use national security exceptions allowable under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) then customs can collect under simplified inland clearance procedure such as HMRC have already informally announced will run with respect to UK borders to enable inland clearance (in Folkestone and Dover’s case to enable goods flow to be uninterrupted except for current security purposes).
The Government should now show business how to take advantage of these simplifications, both to register for Customs and Freight Simplified Procedures on import to the UK, and to make import declarations available in Calais if they export goods to France or have a transit document for transport beyond France which means they do not have to make a declaration or risk getting stuck in Calais.
The EU is aware of these proposals and has not been able to fault them yet has not formally considered them as UK negotiators have not yet put them forward.
It’s a matter of political will at the end of the day. We have expressed it, and the Government and its EU interlocutors must respond positively so we can achieve the sensible future relationship which respects the referendum result that we should all want.