Boris Johnson has made a strong opening bid in his negotiations with the EU. During this process, several things are strikingly different from the previous government. First, there is no requirement to achieve "frictionless trade", only "as frictionless as possible" which is the goal of every free trade agreement.
The EU recognises that completely frictionless trade can only be delivered by the Customs Union and Single Market, which is why Theresa May's government was heading in that direction. By changing this, the Johnson administration is seeking a new settlement which is more readily understood by the EU (and indeed all trading partners).
In the words of Michel Barnier himself, it is a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the whole of the UK with Irish border facilitations, customs facilitations and regulatory cooperation. Since both parties want this, it should be relatively easy to amend the political declaration to reflect this fact by removing references to single customs territories and to the need to build on the backstop.
Similarly, it is now recognised that there will be regulatory divergence. If there is any alignment to be had, it will be alignment of goals. If our aims are aligned and the regulations put in place objectively achieve them then differences in regulation should not prevent mutual recognition.
Second, the Johnson administration has made it clear that the duty of sincere cooperation will be interpreted in a manner more favourable to the UK, one that actually comports with international law. They will no longer be scared of the EU's shadow in this all important area. Already Liz Truss has advanced discussions with a number of countries , in particular with the US. All of this is consistent with a trade policy that culminates in FTAs with many countries, including the EU.
But the EU's response has been disappointing. The Prime Minister's letter to Donald Tusk, the EU's spokesperson said, "does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be”. This theme – that Mr Johnson has failed to set out any details or alternatives – was dutifully trotted out by everybody from Tusk himself all the way down to the chairman of the Irish Senate's Brexit Committee.
The problem is that this could hardly be further from the truth. The Alternative Arrangements Commission , whose Technical Panel I chair, has proposed endless solutions, many of which are already operating in other countries and all of which take into account the need to maintain both the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area. These ideas were collected back in July into a 273-page report which was hailed as "a positive contribution to the Irish border debate" by Mr Johnson, who has quoted from our work extensively. If it's detail the EU wants, they don't have to go far to find it.
Our research has been widely credited with providing a clear and obvious way of delivering customs checks away from the Irish border and obviates the need for hard infrastructure. What we propose is a multi-layered approach with various different strategies deployed together to mitigate the need for at-the-border checks. None of this is "unicorn" thinking, we deliberately restricted the use of technological solutions to those which have already been deployed elsewhere.
A multi-tier trusted trader programme for large and medium sized companies and with exemptions for the smallest companies would cut the number of customs checks needed and ensure they could take place well away from the border. Integrating it with existing administration systems would make things more efficient for local traders. Mr Johnson has spoken about this before, and a similar scheme in Brazil has brought huge savings for business.
Increased use of conformity assessments and working to replace border checks on standards with checks carried out on goods once they have entered the marketplace are ways of limiting the disruption caused by the need for checks. This could be backed up by tough rules for companies caught flouting the relevant regulations.
The use of the Registered Exporters Platform (REX) has already shown that technology can help to ensure goods are compliant with rules of origin. How do we know that works? The EU already uses such a system with a number of its trading partners, including most recently the Canadians.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in the Irish context is the regulation of agri-food. The need for Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary measures, as well as the requirements for veterinary checks at Border Inspection Posts, are not so easily mitigated but could be solved by moving facilities away from the border and utilising mobile units wherever possible to carry out checks. We have also suggested that for this area, where there is an argument that an all-island economy truly exists, various common regulatory areas could be considered.
These few ideas, in case Mr Tusk is in any doubt, aren't intended to be a definitive list of what needs to happen to prevent a hard border. They represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of potential solutions and the amount of research and preparation that has gone into each of them.
Don't be fooled by the EU's feigned ignorance. Its unbending commitment to the backstop is a product of political dogma, not a genuine lack of other options. This is short-sighted because, sooner or later, an alternative to either a hard border or the backstop will be needed.
For that to function, however, Brussels needs to do one of three things: build a hard border in Ireland; cut the Irish off from the rest of the EU by placing a customs border down the English Channel; or work with us to deliver the alternative arrangements. They will face the same choice if Britain opts to leave with no-deal on October 31.
It is also particularly dangerous for Ireland. In the event that the UK exits without a Withdrawal Agreement, the only possible way Ireland can assure the EU it is protecting the EU's single market and customs union will be a border between Ireland and the EU-26. This, coupled with the impact of "no deal" on the Irish beef industry, could be devastating for their economy.
With a Prime Minister who wishes to prioritise free trade and who is unwilling to countenance the "vassalage" of the backstop, it is time all parties realised that the game has changed and there is an obligation on everybody to look for a compromise.
Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere and Chairman of the Technical Panel of the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission
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