United Kingdom dismisses report that it could stay in customs union after 2021

Gladys Abbott
May 18, 2018

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is warning Britain to explain how it plans to keep open his country's border with Northern Ireland or face the possible collapse of a Brexit deal.

Theresa May has committed Britain to leaving the customs union as part of Brexit, but what system replaces this is now the subject of fierce debate among the Prime Minister's top team.

Yesterday, Northern secretary Karen Bradley appeared to strongly back the softer "customs agreement" over the hardline "maximum facilitation", which would likely see video cameras and drones recording details of trucks the Irish border as part of a tariff agreement with the EU.

The prime minister is set to say to the European Union that Britain is prepared to stay fully aligned with the customs union for a "time-limited" period beginning once the proposed 20-month transition period comes to an end.

Neither idea has found favor with the 27 countries remaining in the European Union, which insist that Ireland's border with British-ruled Northern Ireland must remain free of controls after Brexit.

The latest reports suggest a combination of sliding extensions to the customs union to enable the United Kingdom to come up with effective border controls and a feasible solution to the Irish border.

"This again proves that sterling benefits the closer the Brexit scenario under discussion resembles the status quo", said Esther Maria Reichelt, an FX strategist at Commerzbank in Frankfurt.

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But officials have warned it could take as long as five years to implement a new customs plan.

The latest Ipsos MRBI Irish Times opinion poll indicates that Varadkar has some leeway in how he handles the Brussels summit with a sizeable segment of the electorate believing the Government should allow the Brexit talks to proceed even if there is no progress on the Border issue.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that personalised deals with European Union countries could be one option for post-Brexit higher education relations, but raised concerns about the amount of bureaucracy that this would introduce.

However, Eurosceptics have raised concerns that it could lead to Britain being tied to the customs union indefinitely. The EU position seems to be that whilst permanent alignment with EU regulations and the external tariff would be welcome, a short term fudge would not.

"Whether those divisions can be resolved in the next month remains to be seen".

It came in an exchange in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that was not in fact about the border, but was probably influenced by Dublin's approach to the Brexit.

Meanwhile, May's Cabinet is still trying to decide which model - "max-fac" or the customs partnership - is the most feasible way of avoiding a hard border.

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