UK accepts customs checks in plans for Northern Ireland protocol

The UK will demand that the EU agree to changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol in talks in the coming days, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Monday (8 February). [EPA-EFE]

The United Kingdom has accepted that there will be new checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, according to the plans it set out on Wednesday (20 May) to implement the controversial protocol on the province.

In a Command Paper published on Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s government formalised plans that will involve some new customs checks on the island of Ireland, and for Northern Ireland to follow EU rules on agri-food and industrial products.

The proposal would see the whole of the UK leave the EU’s customs union, with Northern Ireland continuing to enforce the EU’s customs code at its ports, using new Border Control Posts (BCPs). The UK government plans to hire an estimated 50,000 additional customs officers to cope with the new customs arrangement.

However, the UK government stated that it sees “no need to construct new bespoke customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland”.

A crucial part of the Withdrawal Agreement, which took the UK out of the EU in January, the Protocol is designed to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and is based around the establishment of a new regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Protocol will have to be implemented in January 2021 regardless of whether agreement on a new EU-UK trade deal is reached before the end of the transition period.

The Command Paper adds that there will be unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s producers to the whole of the UK market and this will be delivered through legislation by the end of the year.

It adds that no tariffs will be paid on goods that move and remain within the UK customs territory.

The paper adds that businesses in the province “will benefit from the lower tariffs delivered through our new Free Trade Agreements with countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan”.

“Implementing the protocol in this way will ensure we can support businesses and citizens, and protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory while upholding our commitments to the EU’s Single Market,” said Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said that the plans would “protect the huge gains of the Northern Ireland peace process… while protecting the interests of both the whole of the UK and the EU”.

The Protocol will remain in force until 2024, at which point the Northern Ireland assembly will decide whether to extend or end the arrangements.

The question of Northern Ireland’s status was one of the most controversial in the Brexit process. Brussels and London are currently at loggerheads over whether the European Commission should be allowed to open an office in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the Protocol, which the UK government says would be “divisive in political and community terms” on the province.

EU chief negotiator on Future Relations, Michel Barnier, has said that the bloc needs “clear evidence that the UK is advancing with procedures for new customs arrangements”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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