John Simpson: Northern Ireland business groups' input on Brexit border talks could help strike deal
Let's give Michel Barnier, the EU chief Brexit negotiator who's on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland, a practical answer to the border question. A workable Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, a series of useful favourable terms, or concessions, in the final Brexit treaty is both possible and available.
To get that deal there needs to be a more practical involvement by business interest groups based in Northern Ireland which builds a workmanlike understanding and is delivered in the negotiations. This can answer the Barnier request that he should be offered a UK solution.
The passive 'cannot do anything' paralysis is unnecessary and unhelpful. The 'backstop' option as agreed by the UK government and the EU negotiators can be used to agree a deal. This deal would be designed as a fail-safe if the UK does not obtain a customs-free agreement with the EU.
A workable outcome, consistent with implementing Brexit and avoiding the unnecessary idea of a trade border 'down the Irish Sea', a nearly seamless Irish border, can be devised. Practical business priorities must be accommodated to allow a Brexit border outcome that allows the economies to continue to function.
The serious weakness which has emerged and is becoming more worrying is that Northern Ireland's interests are not being forcefully articulated. Some of these concerns were reflected in the recently published letter from the head of the NI Civil Service sent to senior UK Brexit negotiators. As is already clear, the UK Government is being tasked to provide workable arrangements to minimise the impact of the UK/Ireland border.
Rather than quibble about the unfortunate, near incompetent response from the UK negotiators, Northern Ireland interest groups need to articulate possible practical arrangements to facilitate a near seamless Irish border.
Already in the negotiations there is an acceptance that cross-border flows of goods of NI origin from small and medium sized businesses might attract a suitable treaty waiver from customs duties (in either direction). This would be supported by a proviso that there would be continuing regulatory alignment with existing EU technical and food standards.
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Since the post-Brexit trading environment will start from a position of regulatory alignment, this proviso should pose no immediate problems and might continue indefinitely.
For larger businesses (other than SMEs) engaged in cross-border trade, a minimal requirement would allow for no immediate border facilities or checks, subject to these businesses registering as 'an approved economic operator' with periodic data returns and powers of inspection.
If there continues to be an absence of informed local influence there is a risk that the UK might (at the least) miss the opportunity to build these flexibilities into the final agreement. The UK Government, in the Cabinet, has been searching for what seems a much more complicated set of arrangements which have attracted criticism as either too complicated or even unworkable. A locally devised, locally appropriate system for this island would have obvious merits.
If there is an acceptance of the more liberal cross-border trading arrangements then the Irish border question will take a less significant role in the full EU/UK agenda, opening the way to agreement on a range of other questions.
Of particular importance is the need for clarity on the operation of the local labour market. Critically there is an initial agreement that the UK/Ireland common travel area will allow people to live and/or work anywhere in these islands. However, a broader degree of flexibility is being sought on behalf of Northern Ireland.
David Sterling, the head of the Civil Service, has argued to the Migration Advisory Committee that Northern Ireland needs access to skilled labour from the south of Ireland and further afield … "to compete successfully in international markets". His argument is based on the different needs of Northern Ireland. This becomes a sensible plea for an extra waiver for NI in the Brexit treaty.