Belfast Telegraph

Hard border unavoidable if UK leaves customs union, warns EU

Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Trade barriers will be "unavoidable" along the Irish border after Brexit, the European Union's chief negotiator has warned.

Michel Barnier said yesterday that Prime Minister Theresa May's intention to take the UK out of the European customs union was not compatible with a soft border.

It's thought the Government is hoping to satisfy Tory MPs and ministers who want the UK to strike trade deals around the world, something the customs union may prevent.

But after talks at Downing Street yesterday, Mr Barnier said: "Without a customs union and outside the single market, barriers to trade on goods and services are unavoidable. The time has come to make a choice."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith slammed the "cavalier attitude" of the Prime Minister and said leaving the customs union would threaten the peace process.

"It is categorically irresponsible of No 10 to unveil this cavalier attitude to the Irish Border on the very day all-party talks resume in Belfast," he said. "Northern Ireland appears to be just an afterthought for this government."

Local political parties were also split on the matter, with the DUP's Sammy Wilson saying he welcomed the "clarification" from the Prime Minister. He called on her to "free us from the protectionist policies of the customs union".

But Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard said the policy would cause "serious economic damage" across Ireland.

"This is an extremely reckless decision, but unsurprising nonetheless," he commented.

"The British Brexit establishment has only ever served its own narrow, ideological interests.

"With the Tory party in full-blown civil war, Theresa May has decided that she will use the lives and livelihoods of Irish citizens as collateral damage to safeguard her position."

SDLP Brexit spokesperson, Claire Hanna MLA, accused Mrs May of putting narrow party interests ahead of people living in Northern Ireland.

"The narrow, isolationist, and nativist agenda which appears to have gripped the Conservative Party is incompatible with securing a deal which defends the economy and interests of people in Northern Ireland and across these islands."

Alliance MLA Stephen Farry said the Government was also jeopardising north-south cooperation and the all-island economy. "This announcement poses major implications for the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland, as well as the implementation of the EU/UK joint report from phase one of the Brexit negotiations.

"A hard border can only be avoided if the UK as a whole or Northern Ireland as a specific region is part of the same customs arrangement as the rest of the EU.

"This decision also goes completely against the advice of the business community UK-wide and ignores the implications of the Government's own economic analysis," he said.

"The departure from the EU customs arrangements would separate the UK from its nearest and largest trading partner, and would be hugely counterproductive to our economic well-being," Mr Farry added.

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