The UK’s environment secretary Michael Gove has suggested a possible way around creating a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be to have goods from Ireland checked in Europe.
While Gove said he’s not advocating it, and that it would be a decision for the EU and Ireland, he suggested it would be a way around the imposition of border inspection posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“I’m not advocating or saying this the right thing to do,” he said, but suggested that products that come from the island of Ireland could be checked at a border inspection post in continental Europe.
Gove also conceded that UK’s current no-deal Brexit plans would disadvantage Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector.
Under the plans, EU goods arriving from the Republic and remaining in Northern Ireland will not be subject to tariffs.
The Ulster Farmers Union has said that this would drive down prices and hit producers in Northern Ireland. It could also potentially open the door to illegal trade, which would seriously impact on the integrity of the Northern Ireland agri-food industry.
Speaking at an environmental and rural affairs committee hearing, Gove said “it certainly puts Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry at a disadvantage”.
He further conceded that other nations may challenge the legality of the UK’s current proposals around tariffs.
“It is certainly the case that other countries could have an arguable case at the WTO,” he said.
However, he said the UK Government believes there are specific exemptions because of the broader political and security situation in Northern Ireland underpinning the Good Friday Agreement.
But he said that by the time a legal case could be taken to the WTO and a decision made, the UK and EU would have agreed a trade deal.
Commentators say the continued movement of animals across the Irish Border is the biggest area of concern for the EU ahead of a no-deal scenario.
Officials believe that arrangements can be put in place for tracking ordinary goods brought into the Republic from Northern Ireland to help avoid a hard Border.
Sources say EU agencies are looking at a version of ‘maximum facilitation’, which was once derided by the Irish Government and EU as “magical thinking”.
The ‘max fac’ system involves the use of technology to electronically track goods belonging to ‘trusted traders’ crossing the Border.
However, it will not resolve the question of how to monitor livestock and food products moving between the two jurisdictions. The all-island economy is hugely reliant on the ability of farmers to transport animals and products, including milk, without interruption.
However, the only way of avoiding some form of border checks for the agri-food sector will be if Northern Ireland continues to operate under EU rules.
“Customs is the one area where max fac could actually work – but the big problem is animals. Agriculture is the trickiest part and there’s no solution at the minute except the backstop,” said a source familiar with the no-deal preparations in Brussels.