A hard Irish border can be avoided under any Brexit outcome

A hard Irish border can be avoided under any Brexit outcome

Developing Alternative Arrangements to avoid a “hard border” on the island of Ireland is the key to unlocking Brexit, solving the problems created by the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement and thereby restoring business and investor confidence – not just in Britain but across the EU.

Prosperity-UK, an independent organisation I co-chair, will today be publishing its interim report, setting out the blend of arrangements which we believe will make it possible to avoid a “hard border”. In July we will be publishing a new Alternative Arrangements Protocol, framed in such a way that it could be inserted in the Withdrawal Agreement or utilised in any other Brexit outcome.

The combination of these two elements could be enough to deliver a path to agreement and to solve the Brexit conundrum.

Prosperity-UK was set up two years ago to bring people together, on a cross-party basis, to examine Brexit solutions and opportunities. When 10 Downing Street failed to address adequately the fundamental issue of the Irish border, we established the Alternative Arrangements Commission to do so, chaired by the senior Conservative MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands and supported by 23 technical experts.

Our Commission had three strict remits. First, that any Alternative Arrangements must uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Second, that any solutions would be based on existing best practice and would not be dependent on “unicorn” technology. Third, that the Alternative Arrangements should be compatible with any Brexit outcome.

We believe our Commission has met all three remits and that delivering Alternative Arrangements within three years, so that the backstop is superseded, is eminently achievable.

There is not a single answer to Alternative Arrangements. The solution will be found in a combination of political, practical and technical arrangements. These will include use of existing flexibilities in the WTO and Union Customs Code, multi-tier trusted trader schemes and Approved Economic Operator schemes; pre-clearance in facility and special solutions for small traders as well as exemptions for those below even the VAT threshold.

Agriculture is a vital sector in Ireland and the development of satisfactory phyto-sanitary arrangements is a key challenge. The report discusses the pluses and minuses of an all-Ireland Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) Area, echoing the already existing Common Bio-Veterinary Area, which applies to livestock, as well as the Common Travel Area, which operates for people movement. Another option would be a Common SPS Area which applies not only for the island of Ireland but for the whole of the UK plus Ireland.

The report also examines inspections away from the border such as already happen in Rotterdam (up to 40km from the order) and will occur in France post-Brexit.

Although our solutions do not rely excessively on technology, there is scope for technological innovation. Many companies, such as Fujitsu, Vodafone and others are contributing exciting ideas to make transit and border arrangements work more effectively.

Ultimately of course the Brexit conundrum is less practical than political. It is primarily a trust issue – and therefore soluble under the right political leadership.

The UK has had the wrong leadership.

In the summer of 2018, it redefined the original EU requirement of “no physical infrastructure at the border nor related checks and controls” to a much more onerous self-imposed hurdle of “no checks or controls in Northern Ireland.” In 2019, despite the Brady Amendment (in favour of Alternative Arrangements) being the only vote to pass the House of Commons during the parliamentary farce of the past nine months, the British Government itself made no effort to develop these arrangements. Indeed, the Treasury and No. 10 seem to have actively blocked efforts by the Home Office and others to make progress on Alternative Arrangements.

On the EU side, there has been an unwillingness to provide an end-date for the backstop or to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. But there has been some diplomatic movement. The Strasbourg Instrument, published in March 2019, committed both sides to work on developing new technologies at the border to be ready for December 2020 “with a view to assessing their potential to replace the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”

But this work was only due to begin after the Withdrawal Agreement had been ratified, which means that precious months are now being wasted.

Our proposal is that a new Protocol is drafted which could be inserted into the Withdrawal Agreement or used on a stand-alone basis. Such a Protocol would describe the necessary steps for the UK, Ireland and the EU to be satisfied that the new arrangements adhere to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Either there are conditions which can realistically be met to solve the border issue, in which case all sides can work on them in a spirit of goodwill. Or there are no conditions which will satisfy the EU, in which case the UK would be ill-advised to enter the Backstop.

Finally, we need a recovery of political goodwill on the island of Ireland. As we have learnt from our own visits to Ireland, there is a perception on both sides of the border that the UK and the EU have been aloof, showing no attempt to engage the local communities. Yet it is they, rather than civil servants in Brussels and Whitehall, who should be looked upon to develop practical, local solutions. As one very senior politician said to us in Dublin, “what needs to happen first and foremost is the restoration of trust on the island of Ireland.”. That is where we hope to have made a start.