Irish border: UK suggests no further immigration border controls required

The UK also proposed maintaining EU standards on agri-food products to avoid need for Irish border customs checks. This may hinder its ability to forge new trade deals with other countries.

The government, today, pledged to protect the Good Friday Agreement and Common Travel Area in its latest position paper ahead of the third round of Brexit negotiations. In the paper, it quotes the Irish Government who had said that the invisible and open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is an important symbol of the success of the peace process.

The disappearance of physical border crossings and checkpoints is both a symbol of, and a dividend from, the success of the peace process.

Many EU supporters would argue that peace as well as economic prosperity on the continent has also been aided by open borders and free movement in the EU.

The government’s position paper recognised the EU’s “unwavering support for the peace process had been valuable in furthering political progress and reconciliation”. The government highlighted the EU’s support through its regional policy, which included financial contributions to the International Fund for Ireland and to PEACE programmes. It called for both the UK and EU to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and ensure that nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement undermines it. This includes protecting citizenship rights so British citizens in Northern Ireland who can claim Irish citizenship and do so will also have EU citizenship rights.

The UK also proposed the EU continue funding the current PEACE programme (due to run until 2020) alongside the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish government as well as work with the UK on a future potential programme. This suggests the UK is willing to continue contributing to the EU budget at least for ongoing cooperation in funding programmes related to the Good Friday Agreement.

Free movement between the UK and Ireland and immigration

The UK said it also wanted to protect the Common Travel Area (CTA) and its associated rights by including recognition of the CTA’s status in the Withdrawal Agreement. Associated rights include the free movement of British and Irish citizens between the UK and Ireland as well as access to social welfare, healthcare and the right to vote in local and parliamentary elections.

The government downplayed issues around immigration saying “it is important to note that immigration controls are not, and never have been, solely about the ability to prevent and control entry at the UK’s physical border”. And it said that free movement under the CTA could be maintained with control mechanisms on access to the labour market and social welfare playing a key role. This could, however, raise concerns amongst those in Britain arguing for stricter immigration controls when the UK leaves the EU.

Customs border and frictionless trade in goods

The government seems to see the issue of “frictionless trade” in goods across the border as a bigger challenge. It noted that delivering this will “require detailed joint work and can only properly be finalised in the context of the new, deep and special partnership that the UK wishes to build with the EU”. However, the paper outlines a number of options to address the issue. They include the proposals set out in its position paper on future customs arrangements published yesterday such as the “UK mirroring the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world where their final destination is the EU”. The UK has already acknowledged that its proposals for new customs arrangements would likely mean higher costs and more red tape for businesses. Other options put forward include a waiver for businesses to submit entry and exit summary declarations and a “cross-border trade exemption” for smaller traders who operate in local markets.

Government’s proposal for a customs cake and eating it

As we noted in our previous article on the government’s paper on future customs arrangements, even if a customs union between the UK and EU could be agreed, this would not remove all barriers to “frictionless trade”. This, for instance, includes checks that goods comply with regulatory standards. The government’s Northern Ireland paper suggests that as trade in agri-food products require animal welfare and food safety checks, the UK and EU could agree “regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures”. As a member, the UK already complies with the EU’s regulatory standards on agri-food. But this proposal suggests the UK would not seek to diverge from those standards. As the Guardian reports, this could prove problematic for the UK in negotiating new trade deals with other countries (the USA and its chlorinated chicken comes to mind). It also effectively means the UK ceding control over agri-food regulation to the EU. Of course, as a member of the EU, the UK has a say in what those regulations are.

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) welcomed the UK’s desire to avoid a hard border, including customs checks on agri-food goods but said it was difficult to see how the proposals could work. In a statement responding to the paper, IFA president Joe Healey said “if the UK insists on pursuing its own free trade agreements, two divergent regimes would have to operate on the island and it is impossible to see how border checks could be avoided”.

Cross border trade in agricultural produce encompasses crucial issues such as food safety and animal health.

If the UK insists on pursuing its own free trade agreements, two divergent regimes would have to operate on the island and it is impossible to see how border checks could be avoided.

Joe Healey, president of the Irish Farmers Association

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) also welcomed the paper. In a statement, UFU president Barclay Bell also warned that “limiting their flexibility to trade would inevitably have a negative impact on our industry at every level”. He added “thousands of jobs across Northern Ireland depend on a farming and food industry well placed to trade within the island of Ireland, the EU and with the rest of the world”.

In another section of the paper, the government proposed maintaining the Single Electricity Market that exists in the island of Ireland. You can see the full paper at

The best way forward? Staying in the EU’s customs union and single market

The two government papers suggest the UK would need costly and more burdensome customs arrangements to maintain what we already have. This second paper further suggests the UK maintaining EU standards in order to avoid additional customs checks at least for the agri-food sector as well as not introducing immigration border controls between a future UK/EU border. You can’t help wonder why the UK doesn’t simply seek to stay in the EU’s customs union and single market and consider enforcing the immigration restrictions already available within the the EU’s free movement framework. It would be far more simple and cost far less.

For more analysis on the government’s Northern Ireland/Ireland paper, it’s worth a read of EU law expert Steve Peers’ thread on twitter (click on the tweet for more):

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