The UK is heading for a new clash with Brussels over its plan to introduce minimal border checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as it implements the Brexit deal struck with the EU last October.
Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, told MPs on Wednesday he wanted to protect the “integrity of the UK single market”, ensuring that trade flowed across the Irish Sea with the bare minimum of checks and bureaucracy.
But Mr Gove’s plan is likely to run into opposition from the EU, which wants rigorous checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to protect the integrity of its own single market as under the UK-EU deal the north-south border in Ireland will be left open.
Mr Gove set out in a paper for the first time how the UK intended to implement the so-called Northern Ireland protocol — agreed alongside Britain’s exit deal with the EU last year — which left the region uniquely placed in both EU and UK customs zones.
The cabinet office minister said that businesses in Northern Ireland would have “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK market and should not have to fill in customs declaration forms for goods travelling eastward across the Irish Sea.
Mr Gove said there would be “some processes” covering goods travelling from GB to NI — notably animals and agrifoods — intended to protect the EU single market but no “new customs infrastructure” would be needed.
“At the heart of our proposals is a consensual, pragmatic approach that will protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the huge gains from the peace process,” Mr Gove said.
“We will implement the protocol in a way that will ensure we can support businesses and citizens and protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory, while upholding our commitments to the EU single market.”
Mujtaba Rahman, of the Eurasia Group consultancy, said Brussels was likely to take the view that the proposal aimed at protecting the integrity of the UK market would leave the EU single market exposed.
“They want to get away with no export summary declarations from NI to GB — good luck with that,” he said. “And they are saying no to new customs infrastructure — good luck with that too.
“They are proposing limited checks and very limited infrastructure. I think that is going to be very difficult for the EU side to agree.”
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland uniquely has a foot in both the UK and EU markets. It remains part of UK customs territory and can benefit from any trade deal struck by the UK government — for example with the US — and could therefore have lower tariffs than the EU.
However to ensure there is no return to a hard border in Ireland, the region’s trade with the Republic — and therefore the rest of the EU — is covered by the EU’s customs code; it will also apply some single market rules to avoid a regulatory border.
The EU is therefore insisting on customs checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain to make sure the right tariff has been paid before they move into the single market in the Republic of Ireland. Checks are also needed to make sure they meet EU standards, especially on agri-foods.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson has always insisted there would be no checks on goods travelling in either direction across the Irish Sea, but Mr Gove’s paper concedes that is not the case, although it wants them to be unobtrusive and “kept to an absolute minimum”.
The document also states the protocol would only remain in force for as long as the people in Northern Ireland want it to. A vote on extending it could take place every four years, with the first in 2024.
Mr Johnson conceded last year that the region was likely to want to keep the status quo: “Northern Ireland has got a great deal,” he said. “You keep free movement, you keep access to the single market and, as it says in the deal, unfettered access to the UK.”
If the EU rejects Mr Gove’s interpretation in the protocol, the issue will have to be hammered out in a special joint committee on Northern Ireland.
If differences cannot be resolved, the dispute is likely to further contaminate the stalled efforts by the UK and EU to agree a free trade agreement by the end of 2020.
Stephen Kelly, chief executive of the Manufacturing NI business group, welcomed the proposals. “Their commitment to being pragmatic, delivering light-touch controls to make their deal work will only benefit from a greater level of engagement with the local business community who will have to operate any systems.
“Since the prime minister secured his EU Exit deal back in the autumn, we have said that for it to work, there is a need to secure derogations, mitigations and provide compensation for Northern Ireland’s businesses and consumers.”