Belfast Telegraph

John Simpson: Whatever the mechanisms, it's clear the border is back

John Simpson

By John Simpson

The case for a deferment of Article 50 of the EU withdrawal process is now unavoidable. Never in the lifetime of today's population has the UK Government been so rudderless. What is the majority opinion of Parliament and why is Brexit proving so difficult?

Going back to the referendum nearly three years ago, hindsight shows that the binary question of remain or leave was ambiguous.

What proportion of the 52% who voted to leave wanted a radical Brexit and what proportion wanted a continuing customs union and single market?

With only 15 days to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, the confused approach of the UK Government to meeting the deadlines is frightening. By the time that this comment is being read, Parliament will have decided that a no-deal exit from the EU is not wanted.

Getting to a solution remains elusive. What is an acceptable deal? Logically and unavoidably, a deferment of the provisions of Article 50 of the application to leave the EU has become, almost by default, the best available option. Even that option keeps the Government and Parliament in critical roles.

Deferring Article 50 must come with a statement of ambition for the completion of Brexit.

For Northern Ireland, the rejection of the proposed withdrawal agreement, as agreed with the EU, is already having unwelcome consequences. The backstop deal remains on the negotiating table.

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The intention was that this was the route to a near frictionless border, but already it is clear that, whatever the mechanisms, the Irish border is back.

If the UK leaves the EU without an agreed deal, the Irish border becomes, at the very least, a series of administrative hurdles with complex consequences which will defy all the earlier good intentions of the Irish Government - represented by the EU - and the UK Government.

The UK Government, by anticipating the no-deal crash, has prepared for what are termed 'temporary trading arrangements'. Goods coming to Northern Ireland from Irish sources will be admitted duty and tariff-free.

That statement of intent leads on to other questions.

Can the Irish Government be expected to persuade the EU that goods from Northern Ireland can enter the EU, not just Ireland, without duty? The EU will not want the Irish border to be a duty-free back door to the EU. For goods coming to Northern Ireland, what arrangements need to be made to deal with VAT liabilities? More significantly, cross-border trade will need to be monitored, but how?

Methods of recording trade flows will need to be documented. Businesses will need to be registered economic operators. They will make official returns.

Even if no duty is payable, export and import documents will become routine - the border will be a material influence. The UK proposals for cross-border business in a no-deal situation are unpalatable. Irish proposals are not yet clear.

These outcomes are surely a most unwelcome answer to the Brexit debate. The debate is not even nearly over.

John Simpson is an economist

Belfast Telegraph