The UK Government has published its Brexit proposals in an attempt to break the present impasse.
As set out previously, Parliament rejected the draft Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May. One of the main objections to the draft Withdrawal Agreement was the so-called ‘backstop’. The backstop, which was only intended to apply in the event that no other agreement was reached between the parties regarding future customs arrangements, was in effect an insurance option to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In its original form, the backstop would be in the form of a “single customs territory” between the UK and the EU, which it was argued was at odds with the Government’s intention that the UK will no longer be part of the Customs Union once it has left the EU. Further, concern had been expressed that the UK could become trapped in the backstop indefinitely, notwithstanding assurances from EU politicians that the EU did not wish for the backstop to apply indefinitely either.
A key element of the proposal would be the creation of an “all island regulatory zone”. This aims to remove the need for regulatory checks and related infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland but would also allow for the UK and EU to maintain their own distinct customs regimes. The plan would be achieved by aligning Northern Ireland with EU sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules, including agri-food goods, and EU rules on manufactured goods. Trade moving from the UK to Northern Ireland would need to notify the relevant authorities before entering Northern Ireland to ensure the appropriate checks can be undertaken and there is the opportunity to prevent prohibited items gaining entry.
In relation to customs, the Government’s plan seeks to avoid the necessity for customs checks at or near the border. Instead, goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland will be notified using a declaration. Goods would be imported or exported between Northern Ireland and Ireland under either i) a transit mechanism or ii) a prior declaration mechanism. In either case, they would be monitored by the relevant territory’s customs authority until they are cleared or fall under an alternative customs procedure. In addition, there would be special provisions for small traders and a trusted trader scheme for authorised traders.
However, the remainder of the UK, the continued arrangements would depend on the consent of Northern Ireland. Specifically, The proposal states that before the end of the transition period, and every four years afterwards, the UK will ensure there is an opportunity for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive to give their consent to the arrangements’ continued operation. If such consent is withheld, arrangements would default to existing rules.