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EU will not match zero tariffs - May's no-deal Brexit plan means hard border in Northern Ireland, warns CBI chief

Government's no-deal planning treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.
Government's no-deal planning treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

By Jonathan Bell

One of Northern Ireland's leading business organisations has said that Downing Street's plans for a no-deal Brexit would break the Government's pledges to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

It comes as the European Commission has insisted it will impose World Trade Organisation tariffs on UK goods if a withdrawal deal is not agreed.

The UK proposals - announced on Wednesday morning in a bid to "inform" MPs ahead of a no-deal vote in parliament - state there will be no checks and no tariffs imposed on goods moving from the Republic of Ireland across the border into Northern Ireland.

However, tariffs will be payable on goods moving from the EU into the rest of the UK through Northern Ireland. The government insisted the approach would not create a border down the Irish Sea.

Reacting, EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “The differential treatment of trade on the island of Ireland and other trade between the EU and the UK raises concerns.

“In the event of no deal, the Union has already made clear it will apply its normal third country trade regime to all trade with the UK and accordingly charge Most Favoured Nation tariffs on imports from the UK into the EU."

Earlier CBI NI Director Angela McGowan said the tariff measures are "totally contradictory" to previous the Government's promises to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland.

She said the latest proposed tariff scheme would leave Ireland with no option but to apply EU tariffs on all goods coming from the UK and therefore would require substantive checks to take place at the Irish border.

This desperate and ill-thought through trade measure will create all the conditions for a hard border in Northern Ireland. Angela McGowan

“Today’s proposed policy also contradicts previous government promises to deliver a trade policy that works for all UK regions.  The government has acknowledged that this policy will not work for Northern Ireland – leaving local industry at a huge disadvantage, creating an unlevel playing field in terms of competitiveness and leaving the region with all the problems associated with border checks and delays on exports into the Republic of Ireland," said Ms McGowan.

As part of the UK plans, it is thought there would be no new checks enforced between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, rather an intelligence-based approach will be used to target abuse of the system.

The government said it recognised Northern Ireland’s businesses and farmers would have concerns about the impact the proposals could have on competitiveness.

"However these are the only steps the UK government can unilaterally take to deliver on our absolute commitment to avoid a hard border in the event of no deal," said the UK Government in a statement.

Government said the approach would be temporary and in place for up to 12 months. And there could be tariffs imposed on good coming from Northern Ireland into the Republic.

It's reported there has been much bemusement in Brussels at the proposals given how the sticking point in the process has been the treating of Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

Seamus Lehany of the Freight Transport Association in Northern Ireland said the plan was "shambolic".

"NI will be the biggest loser," he said.

"No tariffs on ROI/EU goods entering NI across border. Tariffs applicable on goods entering GB via Dover, Holyhead etc. NI therefore treated differently."

"Wild west of the UK'

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the proposals would make the region the "wild west of the UK".

"This will affect Northern Ireland's reputation as a serious trading area," said Aodhan Connolly.

"This is simply a mess.. it is not a solution at all."

He said the EU would likely look to secure its single market from cheap loc standard imports creating a hard border.

"The people who will suffer most are legitimate businesses and farmers in Northern Ireland who will be able to move their goods to the Republic without tariffs whereas Republic of Ireland goods will have free rein and it will be a goldmine for criminals."

He added: "This does not maintain control of the border, monitor flow of goods into the UK and organised criminals will exploit this system.

"This proves yet again why we need a deal."

Responding, the DUP's Westminster leader Nigel Dodds would not say he would be vote to take a no-deal  off the table in the Commons later on Wednesday. He said as a principle the DUP did not think removing the prospect of a no deal was a good negotiating tactic.

He described as a "nonsense idea" the prospect completely ruling out a no deal.

"We want to get a deal," he told the BBC.

"If you want to buy a car, or anything across the table, you would never say to the person 'well it doesn't matter what terms you offer I will take it and I won't walk out'."

There will be differences, there will be special arrangements but not fundamental changes. Nigel Dodds

The North Belfast MP said one of the reasons they could not back Theresa May's deal was based on the Attorney General' legal opinion there was no mechanism for the UK to leave the backstop. He said the Cabinet had "undermined" the prime minister in telling her to take a no deal off the table.

"The principle of taking a no deal off the table gives leverage and power to the other side."

Mr Dodds said the DUP would form its policy on the principles of preserving the union "in terms of the constitutional and economical integrity of the union."

"We are about the single market integrity of the United Kingdom."

He said unionism was united on opposition to the backstop.

"If we want to leave the EU we should do it together," he continued.

"There will be differences for Northern Ireland, there will be special arrangements but not fundamental changes like separate customs arrangements or having our laws made in Brussels without any say from anyone at Westminster or the Assembly, that is unconciousable.. it is not a rationale way forward."

In the case of no-deal, the UK Government is committed to entering discussions urgently with Brussels and Dublin to agree long-term arrangements.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley said: "The Government has been clear that a deal with the European Union is the best outcome for Northern Ireland.

"But we will do all we can to support people and businesses across Northern Ireland in the event that we leave without a deal.

"The measures announced today recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. These arrangements can only be temporary and short term."

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