On Tuesday 12 September, the European Research Group (ERG) of backbench Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs, published a 19 page document, claiming to show a hard border could be avoided in Northern Ireland in the event of a hard Brexit. This briefing spells out 10 reasons why the assumptions made in the document are either not grounded in reality, fail to understand existing EU rules or would increase checks and bureaucracy in Northern Ireland – a part of the UK where latest opinion polls suggests that over two thirds of the population actually wants to stay in the EU.
- The half-baked proposals made today by the European Research Group show that two years on from the referendum, Brexit hardliners are still in denial about the real threat Brexit poses to Northern Ireland.
- It is simply not good enough, as Owen Paterson stated today, to “use imagination” to solve the problems faced by businesses and communities living on each side of the border.
- The ERG hardliners do not care about Northern Ireland. They have suggested border checks for people and goods, threatened the integrity of the UK, attacked the Good Friday Agreement, and downplayed the border issue altogether.
- Today’s proposals – aside from the fact that they would be rejected by the EU on day one – are not a credible alternative to the current peace and stability in Northern Ireland that is underpinned by membership of the EU.
- The proposals are the latest failure of the ERG to articulate their ideological fantasy for a hard Brexit. They should stick to shouting from the side lines, or face up to reality, and allow the country to judge their actions, through a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal.
- The document fails to acknowledge that leaving the Single Market & Customs Union makes border checks unavoidable, as has been highlighted by the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier as well as by customs experts in the Republic of Ireland: who have noted that irrespective of the type of deal, a border will be needed.
- The document focuses solely on the transport of and trade in goods and fails to even offer a solution which covers cross-border Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland trade in services, for example the existing all-Ireland electricity market, currently covered by Single Market rules.
- On numerous occasions throughout the document, the ERG state that UK and EU rules will be the same post-Brexit and that any post-Brexit divergence in rules would be easy to manage, where the EU could “require confirmation that any goods imported from the UK conform to EU standards”. This indicates that either the ERG believe that checks would be required or, alternatively, that the UK would end up shadowing EU rules to maintain equivalence with EU rules. (In any case the EU have already made it clear they will not contemplate their legal duties being devolved on to a third country, which is what the UK would become on a hard Brexit.)
- The Brexiteers have no serious proposals as to how to avoid a hard border. Owen Patterson, one of the leading members of the ERG and a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland claimed at the press conference for the publication of the document that “using imagination” would be required to solve the border issue. International rules are not based on imagination but laws.
- The ERG have failed to understand how existing EU VAT rules work when it comes to border checks. Whilst they argue that there is an existing border between Northern Ireland on VAT, where infrastructure is not required, the current VAT system exists with both countries as EU members where checks on VAT are entirely administrative and do not require any physical infrastructure. Outside of the EU, absent an agreement, then VAT checks at the border would most likely have come into force.
- The ERG, through their best efforts, have actually tried to make a hard border even more likely: A European Research Group backed amendment to the cross-border cross taxation bill putting the UK in a separate VAT regime to the rest of the EU, increases the likelihood over additional border checks on the Irish-Northern Irish border, where, post-Brexit goods entering the EU from outside the EU would also need to be cleared for VAT purposes.
- The ERG admit themselves that their proposals would still require checks: Their document suggests that the UK and the EU could agree to recognise each other’s rules when it comes to agricultural goods although they accept that “if regulations are recognised as equivalent, there may still be checks to ensure conformity with those regulations.” Once again, it must be stated that the EU have been very clear that they will not cede control over their legal processes and duties to a third country which would not be subject to the oversight of the EU’s legal frameworks, including the European Court of Justice. They regard this as a question of the rule of law and absolutely fundamental.
- They use poor examples of infrastructure free-borders to make their case: On the issue of customs, the ERG paper references the Sweden-Norway border as an example of infrastructure-free borders when it comes to customs checks, failing to highlight that both Norway and Sweden are both members of the Single Market – which the ERG wants to leave – and therefore follow the same rules and regulations for product standards. Further Norwegian and Swedish customs authorities can exercise their powers inside the other country’s territory: it is ignorant in the extreme to imagine that the Irish Republic would allow office holders under the British Crown to operate on its territory or that officers of the Irish Republic would be able to operate in the territory of the United Kingdom.
- The ERG proposal would increase bureaucracy, suggesting that “large- and medium-sized companies may be able to seek Trusted Trader status for their particular trade.” This presents additional paperwork for companies which they are not required to comply with today.
- The ERG document fails to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the EU: Research by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank from late May 2018 shows that if presented with the opportunity, 69% of the population would vote to remain in the EU. This is an increase of 13 percentage points from the 2016 referendum.
Claim: Infrastructure and checks are already in place between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, notably with regards to VAT.
- The ERG are clutching at straws to make their blind ideological vision of a hard border in Northern Ireland palatable.
- The current VAT system exists with both countries as EU members where checks on VAT are entirely administrative and do not require any physical infrastructure. Outside of the EU, absent an agreement, then VAT checks at the border would most likely have come into force.
Claim: The ERG’s proposals would not affect the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
- Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested that we should check people at the Northern Irish border just like during The Troubles. “There would be our ability, as we had during the Troubles, to have people inspected. It’s not a border that everyone has to go through every day, but of course for security reasons during the Troubles, we kept a very close eye on the border, to try and stop gun-running and things like that.”
- David Davis has suggested creating a buffer zone in Northern Ireland, compromising the integrity of the United Kingdom. Davis floated the idea of joint UK-EU status for a 10 mile buffer zone in Northern Ireland.
- Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary, seems to believe that the Good Friday Agreement has “outlived its use”.
- Boris Johnson has said that that maintaining no border in Northern Ireland is not important, and downplayed the problem of a hard border. "It is wrong to see the task as maintaining 'no border ... Even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95% + of goods pass the border [without] checks."
 For more information, see here https://europa.eu/youreurope/business/vat-customs/cross-border/index_en.htm & https://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/business/vat/eu-vat-rules-topic/chargeable-event-chargeability_en#_Imported_goods