In April, Prosperity UK, the politically-independent not-for-profit organisation, launched its Alternative Arrangement Commission, co-chaired by Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands. The cross-party Commission will seek to explore practical and detailed Alternative Arrangements relating to the Irish border, deliverable in a timely fashion and ultimately clear a path for the UK to leave the EU. The work builds on the Brady Amendment which commanded majority support in Parliament as it proposed to replace the Northern Ireland backstop with Alternative Arrangements.
I am pleased to be one of the Commissioners, taking evidence from border and trade experts. Last week, we heard from members of the Technical Panel: Frank Dunsmuir, a logistics and licensing expert; Lars Karlsson, one of the best-known customs leaders in the world and former Director of the World Customs Organisation; Hans Maessen, a customs and business advisor; and Shanker Singham, a leading trade and competition lawyer.
Whilst I was a Minister at the Department for Exiting the EU, I visited several of our ports and borders to see first-hand the challenges – and opportunities – presented by Brexit. Whilst, of course, Brexit will involve change at some level at many of our borders and ports, there is every reason to see how new systems can be implemented in a way so as to minimise friction. And this is the case at the Irish border.
No one wants a “hard” border – and rightly so. No-one on either side of the debate wants to violate the Belfast Agreement or upset the lives of those living near the border. Nobody is seeking to create a climate for violence. That is why the UK has guaranteed that it will not introduce border posts and checks, HMRC has said that it will not need physical infrastructure at the border “in any circumstances” and the Head of the Irish Revenue has said that he is “practically 100% certain” that there will be no need for new customs facilities along the border.
Much of the evidence has been well-documented already and it is clear that existing technology and administrative procedures can enable any customs formalities to be carried out electronically and physical checks to be carried out away from the border. There is, of course, presently a border between the two countries for tax, VAT, currency, excise and security; these are managed using technologies without infrastructure at the physical border.
Administrative procedures and existing technology will enable customs formalities to be carried out electronically and any physical checks (of which few would be needed) can be carried out elsewhere.
So far the Commission has taken a wide variety of new evidence. I was encouraged to hear how countries like Brazil, Australia and Dubai are using away-from-the-border arrangements such as sophisticated Authorised Economic Operator schemes. The UK already has AEO in place but with a very low take-up by businesses and traders. By incorporating a multi-tier Trusted Trader system with incentives and benefits for different types and size of business, both friction can be eliminated at the border and intelligence on contraband goods can be enhanced. Inland declarations can be made so that checks at the border are avoided.
With regards to sanitary and phytosanitary matters (SPS), whilst the Union Customs Code states that goods must be cleared at a border, there exist several precedents where away-from-the-border exceptions have been made to facilitate trade such as San Marino and Andorra (which are microstates outside of the EU, land-locked by EU Member States and enjoying special exemptions when it comes to EU customs rules).
Given that 4.9% of Northern Ireland sales are with the Republic (accounting for less than 0.2% of UK GDP) compared to 20.3% with Great Britain, we need to also keep this issue in perspective. The vast majority of sales is internal to Northern Ireland and, when combined with sales to Great Britain, Northern Ireland sales within the United Kingdom make up 85.3% of its economy.
Prosperity UK’s work on this matter will be invaluable in identifying solutions and I hope that the next Prime Minister will consider its conclusions seriously.