The UK has started publishing a series of ‘position papers’ on its approach to Brexit. This, at least partly, is to counter the impression that it is ill-prepared for the negotiations compared to the EU. It is believed that a dozen will be produced before October. This is when a European Council Summit will decide whether there has been enough progress on the three key ‘divorce’ issues of citizens’ rights, Ireland and the Brexit bill, to move on to talk about the future trading relationship between the UK and EU. The papers produced this month cover Customs arrangements and the Irish border. Both papers tend to be somewhat vague on the detail of what is being proposed.
The Customs paper reiterates that the UK will leave the existing EU Customs Union (CU) upon Brexit. Confusingly, it then goes on to state that there should be a transition period before new arrangements come into force with ‘a new and time-limited Customs Union between the UK and the EU’. Having a CU with the EU would limit the amount of upheaval and new procedures need at ports etc., but would also prevent the UK implementing trade deals with other countries. It is unclear from the paper which is the Government’s priority because, despite its aspirations, the Government can’t do both.
Longer-term, after the transition period, two options for a permanent customs arrangement are put forward. Both are light on specifics and seem quite reliant on technological ‘fixes’ – worrying with the Government’s record on IT projects. The first option would be for the UK and the EU to have a ‘normal’ customs border, but with the UK simplifying and streamlining where possible to make the arrangements ‘frictionless’. The second option is a vaguely-defined ‘customs partnership’ which would see the UK ‘align’ its approach to that of the EU resulting in there being no need for a UK-EU customs border. The paper itself states that this would be ‘unprecedented and challenging’. Under both options the UK would be free to strike its own free-trade deals with other countries. The paper can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/637748/Future_customs_arrangements_-_a_future_partnership_paper.pdf
On the issue of Ireland, in the position paper the Government commits to protect the Common Travel Area (CTA) between the UK and Ireland (which predates the EU) and to uphold the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. As part of the latter, it is affirmed that those in Northern Ireland will continue to be able to claim citizenship of Britain, Ireland, or both. In terms of the border, the paper states a desire to have ‘no physical infrastructure’ whatsoever. This suggest both people and goods will be able to freely cross the 310 mile border. How this would be squared with leaving the Customs Union and having to police imports and exports is unclear. The paper suggests that regulatory equivalence in agri-food measures should be maintained between the EU and UK to facilitate cross-border trade and minimise disruption to existing supply chains. Although this would be welcomed by many in the Irish food industry, it may not go down well with Brexiteers wanting to escape ‘EU red-tape’. It may also make agreeing trade deals with third countries more difficult. The Irish paper can be found at – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/638135/6.3703_DEXEU_Northern_Ireland_and_Ireland_INTERACTIVE.pdf
In a further development, the Times has reported that the UK will allow Visa-free access to EU citizens. This would people to travel to the UK, live, and even look for work without restriction. However, those wishing to take up jobs will be required to have a Government-issued permit. The number of permits would be vary by sector. Assuming the number of permits was adequate, this approach might serve to allay some of the fears the food and farming sector has around access to labour after Brexit.