Sunday 18 February 2018

Ireland pushing UK to consider allowing extension of custom rules for two years after Brexit

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Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

Ireland is pushing the UK to consider allowing a temporary extension of EU Customs Union rules for two years after Brexit to become permanent for the Northern Ireland border.

Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the UK could, almost at a stroke, resolve a substantial number of the Irish border related issues by that single customs union concession.

Mr Coveney was speaking in Cork at a European Movement Ireland conference on Brexit in Cork.

EMI director Noelle O'Connell warned that Irish businesses now have less than 550 days to prepare for the UK exiting the EU.

"It is now vital that Irish businesses and organisations ramp up their engagement in terms of getting ready for Brexit," she said.

Mr Coveney was speaking in advance of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's key Brexit talks with Prime Minister Theresa May in London.

Mr Coveney said the priority for Ireland was achieving an agreement that caused the minimum of disruption and achieved as close to the status quo with cross-border and Anglo-Irish trade as possible.

"Our position is that all of this would be much easier if Britain accepted that Northern Ireland or Britain as a whole would stay in a customs union with the rest of the EU," he said.

"That would prevent any need for a customs border which would be a big step forward."

"What Ms May has said is that she is now comfortable that will be the case for a transition period of at least two years."

"I think that is reassuring for Irish businesses and employers."

"The bottom line is that they will not be asked to change their systems twice in terms of adapting to new regulations."

Mr Coveney echoed the warning of Agriculture Minister Michael Creed that, from Ireland's point of view, it is impossible to see any upside to Brexit.

"We do not want Brexit. It is not good for Ireland and, we believe, it is not good for Britain either," he said.

"But if Britain is determined to move ahead and leave the EU, we want as close to the current status quo as it is possible to achieve."

"We want the minimum of disruption to trade and people as possible."

"That is why we believe it would be so important and helpful for Britain to stay within a customs union."

"Better still, if Britain could stay within an extended Single Market."

Farm groups, in response to Ms May's landmark Florence speech last week, have proposed that the transition period be extended from two to five years for the Irish border.

Mr Coveney said that, as the economic implications of Brexit sink in, an increasing number of people within the UK are also backing a so-called 'Soft Brexit'.

"I think there is an evolving debate within Britain on Brexit," he said.

"That is across all parties - the Labour Party and even within the Conservative Party."

He said Ireland welcomed the positive tone of Ms May's address in Florence but he said it was now vital to follow it up with detailed implementation proposals, particularly for Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish trade.

"Needless to say we would like more clarity. But what we got from (Prime Minister) Theresa May last week was some welcome detail that had not been there before," he said.

"She reaffirmed that Ireland has unique issues to consider and that is very important from our point of view."

"She said that protecting the Belfast Agreement and the Common Travel Area were of huge importance to Britain."

"She also reaffirmed that there could be no infrastructure on the border of the island of Ireland. Again, that is very important for us."

"For the first time, she started talking about the Britain's responsibilities to the island of Ireland as a whole, north and south. That language is very welcome."

But he said the policy details will now be critical.

"The detail of who we are going to get there is, of course, not there yet. We have negotiations recommencing today in Brussels between the two negotiating teams."

"What Britain really needs to bring to the table now is a plan to fulfil the aspirations that she outlined in her speech."

"That is what we want."

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