Avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is the government’s top aim in Brexit talks. Brussels wants much the same: the EU Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt has insisted that there should be no return to a fixed border. This is an aspiration shared by the EU, which makes the issue one of its three priorities before Brexit talks can proceed to the next stage. The Tories’ new friends-in-government are also agreed – and so, too, is the Irish government.
Rarely does Brexit generate such unanimity. So if all sides are agreed, you’d be forgiven for thinking things should be straightforward. Unfortunately not. While it’s clear what isn’t wanted (anything that ‘creates new barriers to doing business within the UK including between Northern Ireland and Great Britain’, according to the government), it’s less obvious what the solution is if Britain is to leave the customs union but wants to keep the status quo on what will be its only land border with the EU. The government is pointing to its publication, which it released yesterday, on its plans for a new customs arrangement after Brexit. It also says more information will emerge in its document on the Northern Ireland question, which it will release today. Yet the problem here isn’t the detail – it’s the lack of it.
Yesterday’s publication talks about a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution to the Irish border question. This morning, the Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire spoke of a ‘streamlined’ solution or a ‘partnership’ to make the border work as it does now. But when he was quizzed on what the solution would actually look like, he was less forthcoming. Here’s the key passage of his interview on the Today programme:
John Humphrys: How would it (the technology) work?
JB: There are trusted traders, and those sort of relationships – what are described as authorised economic operators. And pre registration – and therefore how technology and new systems that HMRC are putting in place around customs declarations…through technology…
JH: You’re kind of glossing over this new technology…
JB: That’s why I make the point about this not being all about technology. It is about registration. It is also about exemption. It is also about regulation too.
Brokenshire promised a ‘lot of detail’ to come in today’s paper. Of course, we can only wait and see. But the early signs for a comprehensive solution are hardly promising, and the Irish government for one is not optimistic. Irish Senator Mark Daly told the Today programme that ‘hope is not a policy’ and the government’s plan so far sounded like a ‘smugglers’ charter’. It seems that in Brexit talks, finding a common cause is only half the battle.