The government will today announce that keeping the Northern Irish border free of physical infrastructure is a key priority in post-Brexit trade arrangements with the EU.
Business groups welcomed the UK’s aim to negotiate a time-limited transition period for the customs arrangements, to be announced in a position paper today.
A UK government source said: “Top of our list is to agree upfront no physical border infrastructure – that would mean a return to the border posts of the past and is completely unacceptable to the UK.”
While little attention was paid to the border during the Brexit debate, it will form an important part of the post-Brexit negotiations, particularly given the minority Conservative government’s reliance on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
It will be the only land frontier between the UK and EU after Brexit, but is doubly important because of the Northern Irish Peace Process, which was reliant on keeping free movement at the border.
The free movement of goods and services across the border is also important for the economies on both sides of the border. Northern Ireland exported £2.7bn of goods south of the border in 2015, according to government figures, while last year the rest of the UK exported £13.6bn worth of goods to Ireland, and imported £9.1bn.
Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “It’s welcome that the government has recognised that an interim period will be crucial to providing clarity for businesses on the island of Ireland.
“Firms are making long-term investment decisions now and need to see much more detail from these papers.”
The final arrangements will depend to a large extent on the post-Brexit customs arrangement between the whole of the UK and the EU.
If the UK manages to negotiate a new customs union with the EU then the current open border would likely remain unchanged. However, that would be dependent on a deal which allows the UK to reach new trade agreements.
Under a higher-friction scenario, a system of waivers on submitting entry/exit declarations as well as for trusted regular exporters could be adopted, the government will say.
The government is also expected to firmly reject the possibility of a customs border in the Irish Sea, which would mean all traffic between Northern Ireland and Britain would be subject to customs checks. That would almost certainly be unacceptable for the DUP, without whom the government is unlikely to be able to continue in power.