Barnier’s Irish border plans, DUP threats and May mooting a customs union – today’s Brexit machinations

Barnier’s Irish border plans, DUP threats and May mooting a customs union – today’s Brexit machinations

For anyone wanting to understand the EU’s position on the crunch issues, Michel Barnier helpfully gave a speech to businesspeople in the European Parliament yesterday (which you can read in full here). He set out key areas of disagreement with Theresa May’s Chequers plan over its customs proposals and plans effectively to keep the UK in the Single Market for goods:

“They want their own external tariffs, all the while collecting European customs duties. That would generate loss of income for us, also VAT income for our member states… This type of Single Market system à la carte would be tantamount to giving a huge competitive edge to UK companies with respect to companies operating within the Single Market.”

Since the UK will be leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, he explained that “there must be checks on goods travelling between the EU and the UK, checks that do not exist today – customs and VAT checks and compliance checks with our standards to protect our consumers, our economic traders and to protect your businesses”. He said that those checks would not need to be performed at the border and would be carried out “in the least intrusive way possible”, he said.

He then elaborated on the European Commission’s “backstop” plan for the Irish border, which would involve customs and VAT checks being carried out using existing customs transit procedures, to avoid the need for physical inspections at the border. He said:

  • Companies in the rest of the UK sending goods to Northern Ireland would fill out customs declarations online in advance
  • The only visible systematic checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would involve scanning the barcodes on lorries and containers, which could be done on ferries and at transit ports
  • Regulatory checks on industrial goods would be carried out by market surveillance authorities “directly in the market or at the premises of companies in Northern Ireland”

However, he added that health and phytosanitary checks on live animals and animal products (which already exist in the port of Larne and Belfast) would have to occur “at the border because of food safety and animal health reasons” and that they would “have to cover 100% rather than 10% of live animals and animal-derived products”.

He went on to set out that under the EU’s proposals, in the absence of a physical border on the island of Ireland, anything arriving into Northern Ireland “will also be arriving in our Single Market” and so there would have to be “administrative procedures that do not exist today for goods travelling to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK”. He added: “I understand why such procedures are politically sensitive but… Brexit was not our choice, it is the choice of the UK… Our proposal gives Northern Ireland benefits that no part of a third country enjoys, in particular continued access to the Single Market for goods and continued benefits from EU free trade agreements.”

In other words, that would mean Northern Ireland being in a separate customs territory to the rest of the UK – which is red rag to the bull as far as the DUP are concerned, whose leader, Arlene Foster, spent the last couple of days in Brussels meeting Barnier and others. She issued the following statement yesterday:

“Firstly, it is clear from our meetings that any form of border in the Irish Sea will impede access for Northern Ireland to new UK trade deals. That removes one of the key benefits of leaving the EU. Secondly, best of both worlds is not on offer. The EU wants a one-way turnstile from GB and one-way rules from Brussels. Thirdly, if we have a regulatory border, the problem is not on day one after leaving the problems arise in the years after we leave. Northern Ireland will have to follow EU rules, with no power to influence them and have limited access to the UK single market. We will not burden future generations with a deal which diminishes Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.”

Although she didn’t issue the threat personally, it emerged yesterday lunchtime through the good offices of Newsnight editor Nick Watt that the DUP MPs – on whose votes Theresa May does of course rely for her working parliamentary majority – were threatening to vote against Philip Hammond’s forthcoming Budget if any Brexit deal to which May agrees was in breach of their red lines. This threat has been set out in black and white by the party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson in the Telegraph this morning:

“If the Government decides in the face of EU belligerence to cut and run and leave part of the UK languishing in the stifling embrace of the EU, then that would be totally unacceptable to us and many others in the House of Commons. It would have implications not just for Brexit legislation – 50 per cent of which would not have passed without DUP support – but also for the Budget, welfare reform and other domestic legislation.”

As a warning shot on this front, its nine MPs (the tenth, Ian Paisley, is currently suspended from the Commons) abstained on a vote on the Government’s Agriculture Bill last night.

The potential DUP opposition to any Brexit deal agreed makes the parliamentary arithmetic all the more difficult for the Government. Former Government Chief Whip Mark Harper expanded on this issue on Sky News’ All Out Politics yesterday (watch here) and James Forsyth takes the issue up in the new edition of The Spectator:

“If the DUP voted against May’s deal, getting it through the Commons would become very difficult. In these circumstances, even if the whips succeeded in reducing the Tory rebellion to 15 or so, which would be an impressive feat of party management, they would still need 25 Labour MPs to back the deal. That would be a stretch. In 1993, John Major defeated the Tory Maastricht rebels by turning the vote on the social chapter into a confidence vote. The risk was that the government would fall if it lost the vote. This shocked the Eurosceptics into line. But the restrictions imposed by the 2011 fixed-term parliament act means that this option is not available to Mrs May. So Jacob Rees-Mogg and co believe they can vote down her deal but still vote to keep the government in place.”

As for what the Government is proposing in place of the existing Northern Irish backstop, today’s Telegraph summarises its position thus:

“The backstop plan being proposed by Mrs May would involve the whole of the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU while negotiations over a free trade deal take place, which Brexiteers fear could take years. Mainland Britain would leave the single market, allowing Great Britain to set its own regulations, but Northern Ireland would stay in the single market for goods, meaning there would have to be increased regulatory checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.” 

Never mind the DUP, that will go down very badly with dozens of her own backbenchers.