Ireland pins hopes on EU to avoid ‘hard border’

Talks on the Irish-UK border resume as the European Commission publishes a document to form the basis of a post-Brexit border. In the UK talks continue over the future of the European Customs Union.

UK parliament and with flying Union JAck
Ministers in Dublin are hopeful a draft legal document to be published by the European Commission this week, will form the basis for arrangements to avoid a return to any hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland after Brexit.

Practicalities of a UK-Ireland border

Although the UK and EU agreed a commitment in principle before Christmas that there would be no return to border checks when Britain left the bloc, the practical arrangements are still unclear, not least because Prime Minister Theresa May has flatly ruled out retaining a customs union with the EU.But after talks with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday, Simon Coveney, the Republic’s foreign minister, said he was satisfied the new document would clarify the legal position. “I think people will judge for themselves,” he said. “I think they will see it’s an accurate reflection of what was politically agreed in December.“It will be faithful and true to the political agreement that was made in December and translating that effectively into a legal text that can then be a draft withdrawal agreement from the EU’s perspective. The Irish government is very happy with the content that you will see published on Wednesday.”Mr Coveney said the document would include a default position to cover the eventuality that the two sides fail to reach a Brexit deal on issues such as trade, travel and customs.Mrs May is expected to address the issue in a keynote speech she is making later this week and, on Monday, discussed the problem in a phone conversation with Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach.
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According to his spokesman, Mr Varadkar told Mrs May of “the necessity from the EU side to have the detail of the backstop option of full regulatory alignment spelled out in the draft legal text of the withdrawal agreement”.The spokesman added, “Both the taoiseach and the prime minister said they want the options, as set out in the December Joint Report, to be examined in detail. This would include the preferred option of a satisfactory solution to the border problem being found within the overall future relationship between the EU and the UK.”

Customs union division in the UK

Mrs May, however, is facing domestic political problems over the issue with a rump of her own, hard-line Brexiteer MPs demanding total withdrawal from any customs union, not least because retaining such an arrangement would prevent the UK reaching its own trade deals with non-EU nations.Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, threw his own political spanner in the works on Monday in a speech in which he called for the first time for the retention of a customs union – a move which could attract support from ‘Remainer’ Conservative MPs in a critical Commons vote in the spring.“We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal. So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland, “ he said.Mr Corbyn acknowledged that a customs union with the EU would prevent Britain from negotiating independent trade deals with other countries. But he suggested the UK would have a say in negotiating future EU trade deals.

Customs union and the Irish border

But in a BBC interview on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dismissed concerns that leaving the customs union would lead to a hard Irish border. Instead, he suggested border crossings could be monitored by technology.Mr Johnson also said that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) had been wrong to back Mr Corbyn’s call for continued membership of the customs union.Dismissing the suggestion that no customs union would see the return of border posts in Ireland, Mr Johnson said, “There’s all sorts of scope for pre-booking, electronic checks, all sorts of things that you can do to obviate the need for a hard border to allow us to come out of the customs union, take back control of our trade policy and do trade deals,” he said.
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