Former ministers to chair new initiative pursuing alternative arrangements for the Irish border

Former ministers to chair new initiative pursuing alternative arrangements for the Irish border

This morning sees the launch of a new initiative to develop “credible and practical alternative arrangements relating to the Irish border that can be delivered in a timely fashion to ensure that the UK retains full flexibility in its future negotiations with the European Union”.

The Alternative Arrangements Commission is to be co-chaired by former International Trade Minister, Greg Hands, and Treasury Committee Chair and former Cabinet minister, Nicky Morgan, and will be a cross-party venture with yet-to-be-identified representatives from across the political spectrum, with a view to producing a report in June.

But, intriguingly, it has not been established by the Government – which some might suggest ought to be working night and day on this very issue – but rather Prosperity UK, the organisation co-founded by Sir Paul Marshall to bring together business leaders, academics and policy-makers to seek solutions to Brexit issues and look constructively at the UK’s post-Brexit future.

The House of Commons may have rejected the Government’s Brexit deal three times and then every proposal tabled during the ‘indicative votes’ process before Easter, but lest we forget that back on 29th January, MPs did support by 317 votes to 301 (majority: 16) the proposal from Sir Graham Brady (the Brady Amendment) to back the Withdrawal Agreement subject to the Northern Ireland backstop being “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. It is indeed the only Brexit proposal to have enjoyed a parliamentary majority.

The Commission’s aim, therefore, is to build upon the Brady Amendment, working within the parameters of the Withdrawal Agreement, to seek solutions that are both realistic and sustainable while continuing to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Its principal objective will be to develop detailed proposals to avoid physical infrastructure at the border via “consideration of comprehensive customs cooperation arrangements, facilitative arrangements and technologies,” as was described within the Joint Instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement agreed in Strasbourg in March.

A press release announcing the establishment of the Commission provided the following further details:

The Commission’s work seeks to create further material for parliament to debate, to highlight to our European partners that there is an ongoing parliamentary majority for the Withdrawal Agreement provided that a template for alternative arrangements can be agreed. It should be noted that the work of the Commission will be compatible with any of the EU-UK future relationship proposals currently under consideration.

The Commission has engaged a Technical Panel comprising border and customs experts, practitioners and lawyers with detailed knowledge of trade, business and community relationships in Ireland as well as the EU, UK and international trade regulations in order to create draft processes and procedures to fulfil these goals. In addition, the Commission will engage with established technology providers in order to develop a comprehensive set of solutions and timelines for review.

Nine working groups have been created covering topics including the border and the movement of people in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, Tax, Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards, Small Traders and Trusted Trader Schemes. As part of the Commission’s work, a consultative conference will be held in London before the publication of its report. Further events are planned in other European jurisdictions to communicate the Commission’s recommendations.

Explaining the decision to establish the Commission, Prosperity UK Co-founder Sir Paul Marshall said:

“It is clear that the real Brexit logjam is around managing the Irish border and thereby eliminating the need for the Backstop. Our intention is to bring people together and to find practical solutions to this complex and emotive issue, drawing upon the expertise of some of the world’s best border experts.”

Commission Co-Chair Nicky Morgan – who was previously involved in the Government’s Alternative Arrangements Working Group which considered some of these issues in February – explained:

“The work of this Commission is hugely important. Implementation of suitable border arrangements for Ireland are vital not only to fulfil the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, but also key to agreeing a successful future UK relationship with the European Union, whatever happens in the withdrawal phase and however that future relationship is formulated. The EU have already indicated a desire to get on to discussing alternative arrangements and so we should try to do that.”

Her Co-Chair, Greg Hands, added:

“Alternative Arrangements were a key part of the Brady Amendment, the only Brexit proposal to have passed the House of Commons. I am looking forward to using my background to work with a wide variety of MPs and experts to help move this work forward and explore in detail how these alternative arrangements can work.”

Responding to the announcement, a DExEU spokesperson said:

We welcome all efforts by Parliamentarians to find solutions to break the Brexit deadlock and progress the development of alternative arrangements, as talks with the Opposition continue. The commission’s work will complement our own work on alternative arrangements, which we announced last month.