Britain has proposed that the Irish border remain free of physical customs posts after the UK leaves the EU as part of government plans to tackle one of the thorniest Brexit issues.
The proposal, contained in a position paper to be published on Wednesday, will raise questions about how Britain and the EU would control immigration and trade on either side of the 310-mile land border, which has nearly 300 formal crossing points.
Theresa May’s government has begun detailing its negotiating positions on Brexit, ahead of a fresh round of talks on August 28. The European Commission has warned that the “clock is ticking”.
On Tuesday, Britain said it would seek "a new customs partnership" removing the need for a new UK-EU customs border or “a highly streamlined customs arrangement” using technology to smooth border traffic.
At the Irish border, companies could be given a “continued waiver” on declaring their exports and imports. Smaller businesses could be exempted from any “new customs processes at all”, while big businesses could be given “trusted trader arrangements” to reduce formalities, the position paper on Ireland says.
James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, said on Wednesday morning that there was a “strong compelling case” for exempting the bulk of goods traded across the border from EU customs rules.
“Eighty per cent of what we see on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is actually small businesses. It’s not international trade at all,” he told the BBC. “It’s about businesses operating in local markets and that’s why we think there is a strong compelling case to see that exemption.”
A UK official said any “physical infrastructure” at the Irish border would be “completely unacceptable”, and that the UK was instead offering “some creative options”. Estimated costs were not provided.
Both the UK and the EU have said they do not want Brexit to jeopardise Northern Ireland’s peace process, or the common travel area that allows Northern Irish and Irish citizens to move freely on the island.
The EU has insisted that future trade and customs arrangements can only be dealt with after “sufficient progress” has been made on a divorce settlement, the rights of nationals and the Irish issue.
“The quicker UK & EU27 agree on citizens, settling accounts and Ireland, the quicker we can discuss customs & future relationship,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, tweeted on Tuesday.
But London appears to be using the link between customs questions and the Irish issue in an effort to force the former on to the immediate agenda with Brussels.
The Irish government said that the paper was “timely”, and that it would analyse it “in detail”.
Last month Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, said Ireland would not “design a border for the Brexiters because they’re the ones who want a border”. He also challenged the British government to “convince their own people” about the merits of changed border arrangements. Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan told the Financial Times that Britain should stay in the customs union.
Josh Hardie, deputy director-general of the business group CBI, said: “Companies will be examining these latest proposals closely to ensure they deliver on commitments to ensuring there are no new barriers and that the Common Travel Area is protected.”
Talks are happening against an unhappy backdrop. Northern Ireland has not had an executive since January, due to disagreements between the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, the two main parties. No progress is expected in talks between the two parties over the summer.
The DUP, whose support is critical to Mrs May’s parliamentary majority, have loudly opposed any customs checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. In its position paper, the UK rules out such an option — saying that it would not be “constitutionally or economically viable”.