The UK unveiled plans on Sunday (12 July) to spend £705 million (€800m) on new infrastructure at its ports and border points to help smooth the flow of traffic after it leaves the EU single market on 31 December.
The new spending, which Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said would ensure that “traders and the border industry are able to manage the changes and seize the opportunities as we lay the foundations for the world’s most effective and secure border” will include £470 million on port and inland infrastructure.
The remainder will cover new IT systems and 500 more Border Force staff needed to ensure compliance with new customs procedures and controls after the UK leaves the EU’s single market at the end of 2020.
But Tony Smith, the former director-general of the UK Border Force, said the funding was “obviously welcome” but “a bit late in coming”.
Gove said the funding will only cover the UK’s border points in England, Scotland and Wales and that the government would set out its plans for customs and border controls in the Irish Sea to cover trade between the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic, a crucial part of its Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, later this month.
The announcement follows the publication of a leaked letter from the UK’s International Trade minister Liz Truss to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which expressed concern about the readiness of the UK’s ports and borders and warned that the government’s border plans could lead to smuggling from the European Union.
Truss had also warned that the government’s plans to waive customs controls on goods from the EU until July 2021 could be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules.
With businesses on both sides of the Channel now less than six months away from new border arrangements and, potentially, the imposition of tariffs on goods, the Johnson government has come under pressure to give businesses enough time to prepare for life outside the Single Market.
However, Labour’s Rachel Reeves said the plans were “too little, too late”.
For its part, the European Commission published its own guidance for businesses last week and urged firms to “consider revisiting their existing preparedness plans”.
The Commission guidance also stated that there will be changes from 2021 in trade in goods and services, energy and legal cooperation, travel and tourism regardless of whether there is a new deal, or not.
But top EU officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the UK’s preparedness for the new border regime, and particularly its plans to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Withdrawal Agreement which commits the UK to avoid the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“We do need more details, we need more precision,” said Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, who took office in late June.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]