The controversial Irish border backstop should not be scrapped but instead bolstered by a protocol, according to a report published on Thursday (18 July) by an influential group of Conservative politicians.
The report by the Alternative Arrangements Commission says Britain and the EU should agree on a protocol listing a series of legal obligations for the UK which, if met, would prevent triggering the whole process.
The AAC was set up to explore ways of avoiding a hard Irish border without requiring regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU, a key demand of Brexiteers who are anxious to leave the EU’s customs union and have the freedom to diverge from EU regulations.
It argues that functioning “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border should be up and running within three years. These would include ‘Enhanced Economic Zones’ covering Northern Ireland and the Republic, an idea which the British/Irish Chamber of Commerce has dismissed as “over simplifying the problem”.
“There is an over reliance on goodwill and derogations from the EU,” the Chamber added.
The AAC blueprint also sets outs plans for a “transitional adjustment fund” to be paid for by the UK to support small businesses on both sides of the border and an independent arbitration panel.
The EU’s negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, insists that the backstop must remain but has hinted that it could be open to further talks on the issue.
The AAC is dominated by Conservative MPs and is funded by Prosperity UK, an organisation founded by Jonathan Hill, the former EU financial services Commissioner, and hedge fund boss Paul Marshall. The UK government has set up its own working groups to resolve the border dilemma.
The report does not, however, provide any estimates for the costs of its proposals. The UK’s tax and border authority has forecast that a No Deal Brexit would impose £13 billion in new costs per year.
The AAC is co-chaired by Conservative MPs and former ministers, Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands. And its working group is led by Shankar Singham, a former advisor to International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.
At a launch on Thursday (18 July), Morgan described the report as “a detailed piece of work which we believe can clear the Brexit logjam”.
The Irish backstop, under which Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union if a new EU-UK trade deal is not struck by December 2020, has been one of the main sticking points in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
Both candidates for the Conservative party leadership, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, have voiced their support for such proposals, although Neale Richmond, who chairs the Irish Senate’s Brexit committee, has described the Alternative Arrangements ideas as “beyond pie in the sky”.
Johnson wants a “stand-still” arrangement with the EU that allows Britain to leave but maintain similar terms while it negotiates a new trade deal, including an alternative plan for the Irish border.
Singham called on all sides to compromise, remarking that “there will have to be ladders down on all sides.”
However, Greg Hands conceded that brokering a compromise that would be acceptable to both the UK and the EU was “very, very difficult. It’s like landing an A380 on a regional airstrip”.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]