Friday 28 July 2017

European Commission advisor rejects plan by Government to ensure North maintains a link to the customs union

Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade with Special Responsibility for Brexit, Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins Photos
Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade with Special Responsibility for Brexit, Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins Photos
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

A special advisor to the President of the European Commission has poured cold water on plans by the Government to ensure the North maintains a link to the customs union post Brexit.

Catherine Day, a former head of the European Commission and now adviser to Jean Claude Juncker, said the process of how and where border checks are carried out, in the event of a hard Brexit, would be open to “flexible and creative solutions”.

But she said it wouldn’t work to have Northern Ireland linked to the customs union, while the rest of the UK is out of it, as proposed by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney in an interview with the Irish Independent last week.

“I don’t see how part of a non member state can be part of the customs union,” Ms Day told a Brexit event at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA).

“Politically I think that would also be difficult for London. As an option, I don’t see it existing.

“Let’s say the British leave the customs union, and in 15 years time, they do this less attractive trade deal with any other part of the world. Which rules would they apply to Northern Ireland? The EU rules, or the British rules, it just doesn’t work.”

But she said where the checks happen can be discussed during the Brexit negotiations.

Mr Coveney said the Government will be pushing for a special deal, with “unique status” for the North to ensure the Border remains as close as possible to the current arrangement.

That could see the North retaining a link to the customs union, he said - adding that Michel Barnier, Europe’s chief Brexit negotiator, is on board.

Ms Day said she finds it hard to imagine how the UK will be able to cut better trade deals with countries than the EU currently has.

She said the hope is that London may look at remaining in the customs union.

“In her first speech, Theresa May said out of the single market, she didn’t say exactly the same for the customs union. There is a bit of wriggle room there.”

Ms Day also said that she believes that the UK system is not ready to negotiate yet.

“The UK has a formidable civil service and when it is given clear instructions as to what it is supposed to achieven, it is second to none. But I don’t feel that that level of focus and detail has yert been achieved. What we are seeing to some extent in the political negotiating team, is people who don’t really understand how the EU works, and are now just beginning to discover it very late in the day.”

Declan Kelleher, Ireland’s permanent representative to the EU, told the discussion that negotiations have started in a “reasonably benign way”.

On Northern Ireland he said Dublin wants to see the Executive up and running to get a focused response from Belfast.

He also said there was a lack of clear focus from the British side.

“There is a tendency to assume that it’s for Ireland and the EU 27 to come up and find a solution.,” Mr Kelleher said.

“It was a decision by the British, it was not an Irish decision, it was not an EU decision and certainly the Irish Government has made clear that the British side have responsibilities in this area as well.”

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