British say leaked plan for all-Ireland agri-food trade after Brexit is a 'non-starter'
European Commission plans to introduce border controls between Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit were dismissed by UK officials following the leak of an internal memo from what is believed to be the office of Jean-Claude Juncker.
The proposal would see customs controls at Northern Irish ports checking agri-food products coming from Britain to ensure they meet animal health and food safety standards. Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry would have to undertake to meet those EU standards.
A senior EU source said: "My sense would be yes, that at a high level in the commission there would be a strong push to get the British to accept that at least for agricultural products, the checks should happen between the two islands."
Under the EU plan, there could be frictionless cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but only for the important agri-food industry. The closely integrated dairy and beef industry is vital for both sides of the border.
But UK officials immediately dismissed the idea as a "non-starter", repeating that no Brexit settlement that created east-west border between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland would ever be acceptable. "The integrity of the UK is not going to be compromised," said a senior UK official.
A second UK officials said the Brussels plan was a tactical play in response to British demands for an invisible north-south border.
"It's a reminder that the logical corollary of an invisible north-south border is an east-west border that they know is a non-starter. It's a way of reminding us there is a limit to how frictionless a border the EU is prepared to accept," the source added.
Under the EU plan, customs officers would need to be approved by the EU. They could be British, if the EU agrees, but could also be from the Republic. The UK has offered to enforce EU standards on products going through Britain to the bloc after Brexit.
Agri-food, food produced by agriculture, is particularly vulnerable to a “hard Brexit” because companies on both sides of the border work so closely together.
If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, those supply chains could be disrupted because Northern Ireland will become the UK’s only land border with the bloc.
Customs controls would likely to have to be reintroduced on the currently invisible border because Northern Ireland would no longer be subject to EU rules on animal health and food safety. One reason why the invisible border is possible is that both countries are EU member states.
The memo states that while agriculture could be treated on an all-island basis, the trade in goods across the Irish border would have to be subject to customs controls.
The document, which may enrage Theresa May’s Democratic Unionist Party allies, was revealed in a new book, Brexit and Ireland: the Dangers, the Opportunities, the Inside Story of the Irish Response, which will be published by Penguin on Thursday.
The commission, which leads Brexit talks on behalf of the EU, has repeatedly heaped pressure on Britain to come up with solutions to prevent a hard border in Ireland but the memo shows that its officials are also looking for answers.
The British government has published a position paper to feed into the Brexit negotiations, which begin again next week.
The paper calls for “regulatory equivalence” on agri-food, which means both sides will keep the same high standards and will avoid checks that the EU usually imposes on non-EU imports. It points out the UK already observes EU standards.
It states that the unique nature of the Irish border needs to be recognised as such and calls for unprecedented solutions for the agri-food industry on the island of Ireland.
The Irish government was passed the memo in February, RTE News reported this morning, with Leo Varadkar informed of its contents shortly before he become Taoiseach.
One senior Irish source told RTE the memo was "welcome, but premature."
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