Northern Ireland

Brexit: Can 'alternative arrangements' on Irish border secure a deal?

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt leave 10 Downing Street. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have praised the work of the 'Alternative Arrangements Commission'.

Both candidates to be the next prime minister see alternative arrangements as the key to unlocking a Brexit deal.

These are ways of making sure the controversial backstop is replaced or never used.

Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have praised the work of the 'Alternative Arrangements Commission', a body led by Conservative MPs Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan.

But does it take us any closer to a deal?

What are alternative arrangements?

These are ways of trying to maintain a soft Irish border without regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU.

This is important to Brexit supporters who want to leave the EU's customs union and have the freedom to diverge from EU regulations.

It is normally used to refer to a package of technical, technological and administrative solutions.

At the heart of the Alternative Arrangements report is the widespread use of trusted traders schemes for cross-border businesses, which would minimise the need for any checking of goods.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Boris Johnson has previously said there are "abundant" technological solutions to the Border

It is proposed that any customs checks could happen "inland" at warehouses or company premises using mobile inspection teams.

Use of customs brokers is proposed for small businesses, with the very smallest firms being exempt from any new procedures.

It is also suggested that food standards checks could be carried out by mobile units away from the border.

This does not appear possible under current EU law, which says inspections should be at the immediate point of entry, so would require a derogation for Ireland.

How have these ideas been received by the Irish government?

The Irish government is not officially commenting on the report as it is not a UK government document.

However, it is understood it believes it to be fundamentally flawed and a misreading of what had already been agreed.

At issue is the 2017 Joint Report of the EU and UK. In that document, there was a commitment to avoid a hard border, "including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls".

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The Alternative Arrangements report starts from the premise that this only prohibits checks and controls at the border.

It says: "While our objective is to ensure the lived experience of border communities changes as little as possible, the UK is leaving the EU and some change is inevitable."

The Irish government's view is that the 2017 commitment is wider than just avoiding checks at the frontier - it is also about avoiding new checks away from the border.

'Pie in the sky'

Dublin is also of the opinion that some of what is proposed is being cavalier with the EU's legal order, in particular a proposal that the food standards issue could be tackled by Ireland leaving the EU standards system in favour of a new arrangement with the UK.

Neale Richmond, who chairs the Irish Senate's Brexit committee, has described that idea as "beyond pie in the sky".

Image caption The aim is to keep border crossings like this one at Strabane/Lifford free of checkpoints

He also points out that the sort of arrangements being proposed go beyond how any other EU border operates, so there are no complete examples to draw on, meaning the guarantee of the backstop is still needed.

He also cautions that there is still no guarantee that a withdrawal deal based on alternative arrangements would get through Westminster.

What has the broader EU said?

The EU has committed to working on alternative arrangements, but only once a deal which includes the backstop is in place.

It set out its position in detail in the 'Strasbourg declaration' in March.

It committed to fast-tracking negotiations on replacing the backstop with things like customs cooperation, facilitation and technological solutions.

These negotiations would be reviewed at a high level conference every six months.

Image copyright Reuters

It also made clear that that an agreement covering alternative arrangements to the backstop could stand alone, or be part of a wider package of future relationship agreements.

RTÉ's Brussels correspondent Tony Connolly has reported that EU officials have suggested that any alternative arrangements would have to meet five tests:

  • Avoiding a hard border
  • Complying with the EU customs code
  • Complying with EU principles
  • Complying with WTO rules
  • Protecting the all-island economy

In terms of the Alternative Arrangements Commission report, an EU spokesman said: "A first reading of this non-official paper raises questions as to the compatibility of the proposed arrangements with the EU's existing legal framework."

What's been said in Northern Ireland?

The DUP has long been a supporter of alternative arrangements and three of its senior members were among the parliamentary backers of the commission.

However, the party appears to be reserving its judgement on the specifics of the report.

Pro-remain parties have reacted sceptically.

The SDLP said the report "is predicated on the notion that other parties should set aside their own interests to serve the singular interest of facilitating Brexit. Conservative MPs, and the next cabinet."

The Alliance Party said that while the report is creative, it comes up short as "the only reliable means to avoid a hard border is there being sufficient customs and regulatory alignment between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. There is simply no getting around this".

Business groups have been lukewarm in their responses.

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Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director Aodhán Connolly welcomed the engagement with Northern Ireland communities, but said the proposals would ultimately add complexity and costs that will make business in NI less competitive and in some cases unviable.

The British-Irish Chamber of Commerce has published an assessment of the report which concludes that it "lacks credibility in the reality of how all-island trade actually works".

What happens next?

The Alternative Arrangements Commission will shortly produce a protocol which it hopes could be inserted in the existing deal or used in any other Brexit outcome.

The UK government has also appointed three expert groups to produce official recommendations on alternative arrangements.

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