Belfast Telegraph

Taoiseach's proposals for Irish border 'incoherent': economist

By Steven Alexander

A leading economist who advised former First Minister David Trimble has lambasted the Taoiseach's proposals for the Irish border after Brexit as "incoherent".

Dr Graham Gudgin noted that Leo Varadkar failed to mention his controversial plan to move the border to the Irish Sea - with customs checks at ports and airports - during his visit to Belfast on Friday, and "hopefully this is the last we will hear of it".

Mr Varadkar recently angered unionists when he said the Republic would not help the UK design an economic border for Brexiteers.

The Fine Gael leader attempted to shift the onus for designing a solution to border movement firmly onto the UK, insisting he was not going to "design a border for the Brexiteers because they're the ones who want a border".

It led the DUP to accuse him of "megaphone diplomacy".

Dr Gudgin, chief economic advisor at centre-right think tank Policy Exchange and former special adviser to Lord Trimble from 1998 to 2002, said: "This new tough line from Dublin on the Irish border is an unhelpful change of direction on an already complex issue. The Taoiseach's decision to cease work on a potential electronic border is particularly unwelcome. Varadkar's call last week for the border to be moved to the Irish Sea is incoherent, is said not to have been checked with his own Foreign Affairs officials, and was not mentioned in his speech in Belfast on Friday.

"Hopefully this is the last we will hear of it."

Speaking at Queen's University, Belfast, Mr Varadkar had said one solution could be the establishment of an EU-UK customs union. He also suggested, if the UK does not want to stay in the single market, it could enter into a deep Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU and rejoin the European Free Trade Association, like other non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland.

He said if this cannot be agreed now, then perhaps there can be a period of transition during which the UK stays in the single market and customs union while the issues are worked out.

Dr Gudgin said a bespoke customs union deal with the EU would require a special dispensation from European officials to allow the UK to agree new trade deals with third countries. "This would be a major departure from EU practice and is unlikely to be agreed," he said, although he admitted there was a "glimmer of possibility in this suggestion".

"The UK might agree to a customs union with the EU as long as it did not prevent the UK from concluding free trade agreements with non-EU countries including the USA," he said.

"However, such a departure from the 'Legal Order' is likely to be anathema to the EU. The usual reason for insisting on customs checks is to prevent a back door for goods from what the EU term 'third countries' which do not have free trade with the EU.

"It is perhaps just possible to imagine a high-trust relationship between the EU and UK which would avoid such problems, but the EU's current attitude of wishing to make it difficult to leave the EU almost certainly rules this out."

Dr Gudgin added that a free trade agreement between the UK and EU "rather like that between Canada and the EU, but including agricultural goods, would mean no tariffs to be collected at the Irish border".

"Some regulatory issues requiring border checks might remain, but since UK regulatory standards are currently the same as those in the EU, these issues should be amenable to negotiation.

"A UK-EU free trade agreement remains the most likely outcome of the current Brexit negotiations, albeit after a transition period, but with little thanks to the Irish. With an FTA in place, few border checks will be needed and these can largely be dealt with through technology.

"At some stage, the Irish are likely to have to resume their planning for such technology."

Belfast Telegraph

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