Irish deputy PM rejects Brexiteers’ customs plans

Irish deputy PM insists Brexiteers’ customs plans WOULD mean hard border with Republic as he warns of ‘difficult summer’ for negotiations

  • Irish deputy PM says ‘Max Fac’ customs arrangements would mean hard border
  • PM is scrambling to hammer out government position on post-Brexit customs 
  • Theresa May urged Brexiteers and Remainers to ‘trust’ her to get a good deal 
  • Doubts over whether Mrs May has Cabinet support for her favoured trade option 

The deputy Irish PM today warned Brexit negotiations could be on the verge of stalling as he dismissed the customs blueprint favoured by Eurosceptics.

Simon Coveney insisted the so-called ‘Maximum Facilitation’ option would mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

He claimed the only solution was for the whole Ireland of Ireland to stay in a single customs zone – and said the UK would be in for a ‘difficult summer’ if there was no progress by an EU summit next month.

But Eurosceptics condemned his ‘belligerent’ comments and accused Dublin of posturing to force concessions out of Britain.  

Simon Coveney insisted the so-called ‘Maximum Facilitation’ option would mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic

Theresa May issued a public plea for warring Tory Brexit factions to get behind her today – as Michael Gove dismissed the idea of extending the transition period beyond 2020. 

The PM urged people to ‘trust’ in her ability to get a good deal from Brussels as she scrambles to thrash out a Cabinet compromise on future trade arrangements.

Mrs May is facing the threat of a major escalation in the Tory civil war if she tries to force through plans for a customs partnership with the EU.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said there were ‘significant questions’ about the idea today – although he admitted neither UK option was ‘perfect’.

He also flatly ruled out keeping the existing customs arrangements beyond the end of the mooted transition in December 2020, saying the government needed to ‘crack on’. ‘I don’t believe in an extension,’ he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. 

Boris Johnson launched an extraordinary public attack on the partnership concept last week after a ‘War Cabinet’ discussion ended in deadlock – branding it ‘crazy’ and warning it would be a betrayal of the referendum vote.

There are claims today that half the full Cabinet roster could also be opposed to the proposal – which would see the UK collect tariffs on behalf of Brussels and then offer businesses rebates.  

Mr Coveney appeared to endorse Mrs May’s vision of a partnership in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.

He said the UK had made a clear commitment in last December’s agreed UK-EU text that there would be no physical infrastructure on the border.

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show today, Michael Gove said there were ‘significant questions’ about the customs partnership plan, but admitted neither UK option was ‘perfect’

Boris Johnson (pictured attending Cabinet last week) launched an extraordinary public attack on Theresa May’s post-Brexit trade plans

Mr Johnson responded to Mrs May’s latest comments about Brexit on Twitter today

‘That means we are not talking about cameras and scanning systems and drones here – it means we are talking about a political solution that allows for regulatory alignment in a way that prevents the need for border infrastructure,’ he said.

‘We are simply asking that that commitment be followed through on.’

Mr Coveney said: ‘I’m not flexible when it comes to border infrastructure, I never have been.’ 

Tanaiste Mr Coveney said: ‘To be honest we don’t take our lead from Boris Johnson in relation to Brexit, we take our lead from the Prime Minister.

‘She has signed up to very clear commitments, she has written to Donald Tusk (European Council President) confirming those commitments and I believe her by the way, I believe she made those commitments in good faith and I believe she wants to follow through on them.’

He said Brexit negotiations would face a ‘difficult summer’ if the UK Government failed to honour its commitment to agreeing a ‘backstop’ in the withdrawal treaty.

The backstop would mean regulations between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would continue to align post-Brexit, even if a broader trading deal between the UK and EU failed to materialise.

This concept has alarmed unionists, who believe it would end up creating trading barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, undermining the constitutional integrity of the kingdom.

Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson, one of Mr Coveney’s most vocal critics, branded him ‘belligerent, interfering and Brit bashing’ and accused him of trying to break up the UK.

The UK cabinet is currently divided on the issue, with detractors of the partnership concept instead advocating new technology and trusted trader schemes to enable smooth trade with the EU.

Mr Johnson has been very critical of the idea of a partnership or shared customs territory, insisting it would prevent the UK taking back control of its trading policies. 

What are the options on the table for a customs deal with the EU? 

With time ticking away on the Brexit negotiations, the Cabinet is still at daggers drawn on the shape for future trade relations with the EU.

The government has set out two potential options for a customs system after the UK leaves the bloc.

But despite a series of tense showdowns at Theresa May’s Brexit ‘War Cabinet’ ministers continue to be deadlocked over what to do.

Meanwhile, Brussels has dismissed both the ideas – and warned that negotiations could stall altogether unless there is progress by a key summit next month.  

Despite a series of tense showdowns at Theresa May’s ‘War Cabinet’ (pictured in February) ministers continue to be deadlocked over what to do

OPTION 1 – CUSTOMS PARTNERSHIP 

Under the so-called ‘hybrid model’, the UK would collect EU import tariffs on behalf of Brussels.

Britain would be responsible for tracking the origin and final destination of goods coming into the country from outside the EU. The government would also have to ensure all products meet the bloc’s standards.

Firms selling directly into the UK market would pay the tariff levels set by Brussels – but would then get a rebate if Britain’s tariffs are lower. 

Supporters of the hybrid plan in Cabinet – including Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Greg Clark – say keeping duties aligned up front would avoid the need for physical customs borders between the UK and EU.

As a result it could solve the thorny issue over creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Mrs May has been advised by the chief whip that the hybrid option could be the only way of securing a majority in parliament for a Brexit deal. 

But Brexiteers regard the proposal as unworkable and cumbersome – and they were joined by Sajid Javid and Gavin Williamson in criticising it at a tense ‘War Cabinet’ meeting last week.

There are fears the experimental system will either collapse and cause chaos, or prevent the UK from being able to negotiate free trade deals around the world after Brexit.

Mrs May has instructed official to go away and revise the ideas. Eurosceptics are braced for her to bring back the plan with only ‘cosmetic’ changes, and try to ‘peel off’ Mr Javid and Mr Williamson from the core group of Brexiteers.

They are also ready for Mrs May to attempt to bypass the ‘War Cabinet’ altogether and put the issue before the whole Cabinet – where she has more allies. 

OPTION 2 – MAXIMUM FACILITATION

The ‘Max Fac’ option accepts that there will be greater friction at Britain’s borders with the EU. 

But it would aim to minimise the issues using technology and mutual recognition.

Goods could be electronically tracked and pre-cleared by tax authorities on each side.

Shipping firms could also be given ‘trusted trader’ status so they can move goods freely, and only pay tariffs when they are delivered to the destination country.

Companies would also be trusted to ensure they were meeting the relevant UK and EU standards on products.

Senior ministers such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox believe this is the only workable option. 

But Remain minded Tories such as Mr Clark insist it will harm trade and cost jobs in the UK.

They also warn that it will require more physical infrastructure on the Irish border – potentially breaching the Good Friday Agreement. It is far from clear whether the government would be able to force anything through parliament that implied a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.  

The EU has dismissed the idea that ‘Max Fac’ could prevent checks on the Irish border as ‘magical thinking’.

 

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