Thursday 17 January 2019

Complex customs plan once again fails to give specifics on the Border

Britain's prime minister is accused of 'cherry-picking' by EU after major Brexit speech

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech at the Mansion
House in London yesterday. Photo: Getty
British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech at the Mansion House in London yesterday. Photo: Getty

Shona Murray

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivered her most realistic Brexit speech to date, when she set out "hard facts" about the diminished access Britain will have to European markets.

"I want to be straight: the reality is we all need to face some hard facts. Life is going to be different. Access is going to be less," she said.

Yet she has barely inched closer to outlining her defined interpretation of how Brexit will look and work.

Mrs May once again ruled out hard, physical checks at the Northern Ireland Border, and seemed genuine when she professed her government's commitment to continue with the Good Friday Agreement.

She later went on to reaffirm Britain's key priority to "negotiate trade deals around the world" and leave the single market and customs union. However, such a proposition brings her back to square one, given the complications that arise when two states border each other and are party to different customs rules.

But she said she would come up with a plan for a "customs partnership" so the UK would no longer apply the same EU tariffs to goods from countries it makes new trade deals with.

In a highly complex, yet-to-be-worked-out plan, Mrs May essentially said the customs partnership could keep the same border tariffs for goods intended for the EU. These would probably be collected by the UK, but then apply different ones for those going into the UK.

It appears, according to Mrs May, the need for hard borders and customs checks on this very complicated initiative would be negated using technology and 'trusted trader' recognition to ensure unauthorised goods would not get in to the EU.

Once again, the British premier was unable to give specifics on the matter, and it isn't clear how such a model would work for smaller operators who would likely be outside "trusted trader" mechanisms.

In the past, former Taosieach Bertie Ahern said this would require a "blind eye". Try telling that to puritanical EU trade experts whose actual job it is to ensure borders are kept safe and the single market's rules are abided by. Notwith-standing the fact that the Border in the North is far more toxic and politically destabilising, not to mention the history of smuggling associated with it.

As much as the Irish State would like to give her some leniency in order to protect the Border, there is very little chance that the 26 other member states will allow the EU border be manned without satisfactory, enduring solutions.

Where Mrs May appeared to be realistic is in the area of standards and regulations.

She appeared to ease concerns about sub-standard goods getting into EU territory either through Dover Port or Northern Ireland. But will this intention hold water when her trade secretary tries to deal with America's agriculture industry?

Mrs May also said she wants continued participation in EU science, education and cultural programmes, and a close relationship with Euratom - the EU's nuclear energy agency. She wants recognition of broadcasting rules to allow UK channels to continue to be watched across all European countries, and continuity of rail, maritime and aviation services - so that UK airports don't grind to a halt. She said she wants to protect the City of London's future as global leader in financial services.

The City will lose its so-called passporting rights - which is essentially its right to trade financial products and services across all EU member states. Instead, she would call for a new system, seeking a "collaborative, objective framework". In a nutshell, the prime minister once again spelled out the reasons to stay in the EU, rather than leave.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned time is running out and he needs to see "more detailed and realistic proposals from the UK".

"Brexit is due to happen in a little over 12 months, so time is short. I remain concerned that some of the constraints of leaving the customs union and the single market are still not fully recognised," he said.

Meanwhile, a Brexit source told the Irish Independent: "We can see the elements of optimism if you look hard, but the speech was written to try to please everyone; she talked about hard choices but hasn't taken any of them,"

The EU has accused the British prime minister of "cherry-picking" once again.

This was "a few extra cherries on the Brexit cake", said Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt.

"After what I heard today, I am even more concerned. I don't see how we could reach an agreement on Brexit if the government continues to bury its head in the sand," said leading German MEP Markus Weber.

Irish Independent

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