Leading Northern Irish business group slams 'unworkable' new Brexit proposals

Ben Gartside
Prime minister Boris Johnson at the venue for the Conservative party annual conference in Manchester, UK. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Prime minister Boris Johnson at the venue for the Conservative party annual conference in Manchester, UK. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Northern Ireland’s Federation for Small Businesses has dismissed the alternative backstop proposals “leaked” to Irish media as “unworkable”, Yahoo Finance UK can reveal.

“The customs proposals which emerged overnight for the Irish border would add complexity and cost for our small firms who depend on easy frictionless trade across the Irish border,” said Tina McKenzie, FSB NI’s chair, speaking exclusively to Yahoo Finance UK on Tuesday.

Boris Johnson’s vision for an alternative to the backstop had been leaked ahead of him proposing the plans to the EU as a legal text. It envisaged Northern Ireland remaining in the UK’s customs territory for agrifoods and industrial goods, with selective alignment on EU food safety and animal health rules. The plan would require “customs clearing sites”, according to the Telegraph, on either side of the border, and their movement tracked via GPS or tracking devices.

However, critics of the plan say that these proposals are unworkable and would create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“We welcome that the prime minister quickly moved to dismiss these leaked proposals and confirm that they do not represent UK government policy, as they would have been unworkable for businesses in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“As the Brexit deadline reaches ever closer it is vital that we reach an agreement which works for small businesses, who employ more people in Northern Ireland than all larger businesses and the public sector combined,” McKenzie said.

She said that the north-south (Ireland-Northern Ireland) trade needs to be frictionless. “We will be using the opportunity of this Conservative party conference to ram this message home to senior government figures.”

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Despite Boris Johnson denying the report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, it appears that the proposals are at least similar to those leaked. Government sources have pushed back on the language around one of the proposal containing a “string of customs” checking facilities.

According to the “leaked’ proposals, there would be attempts to mitigate the effect of border friction via the use of AEOs (Authorised Economic Operators), however it is understood that this would negatively affect smaller traders.

Commenting on the proposals, Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform told Yahoo Finance UK: “If what is being reported is accurate – the UK is proposing to both create new infrastructure and impose new checks. Rather than engage constructively, the UK appears to be playing fast and loose with its obligations to Northern Ireland, and hoping that imposing checks 10 minutes away from the border instead of literally on it will make all of Britain’s problems go away. It is difficult to see the EU going along with this.

“The viability of the proposals is also in doubt.”

Dom Walsh, a policy analyst at Open Europe said: “While it is not yet clear that this is an official UK government proposal, it has little chance of being accepted if it is. Ireland has long taken the view that checks 5-10 miles back from the border are almost as bad as checks at the border itself.

“Reports suggest these proposals are similar to Ireland’s contingency plans for the border in a No Deal scenario. As such, Ireland has little incentive to agree; the threat of a ‘hard’ border in the event of no deal does not work if it’s what the U.K. side is proposing as a negotiated outcome anyway.”

Raoul Ruparel, a key advisor to Theresa May on Brexit tweeted that the proposals do not meet the standards of the Joint Reports pledges, so it is unclear as to why either the Ireland or EU would agree. He added that as there is no exemption for SMEs, the proposals would not be workable for daily trade and that even May’s Maximum Facilitation proposals, which were rejected by the EU, did not contain so much border infrastructure, and described the proposals as a “regression” on 2017.

Johnson is anticipated to reveal his Brexit proposals to European negotiators imminently. However, an agreement seems unlikely with UK proposals so far being unpalatable to both Brussels and Dublin.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, had previously said the EU would abolish the backstop if Johnson’s alternative delivered a “fully open” border in Ireland which maintained the Good Friday Agreement.