The decision of the UK government to leave the EU means that the UK is seeking to change the current relationship between the UK and the EU.
Neither the EU nor Ireland have been seeking to change this status quo so it is up to the UK to elaborate what changes are being pursued and up to the EU to react to this.
It also means that any negative impacts of Brexit on the UK, Ireland and the EU are due to the actions of the UK government.
Other than very general statements there has been relatively little detail about what sort of relationship with the EU is being sought and what the UK is aiming to achieve outside the EU.
In this context the publication by the UK government of policy papers on future customs arrangements and Northern Ireland and Ireland last week was significant. Unfortunately while these policy papers contain many positive aspirations they are still short on detail but contain some important inconsistencies and contradictions.
In the papers the UK government states it aims to achieve a new customs partnership with the EU, removing the need for a UK-EU customs border which would minimise the negative trade effects of Brexit that have been identified in research.
However, the policy paper on customs arrangements reiterates that the UK will leave the customs union. An EU member could leave the EU and still aim to maintain the customs union.
Thus leaving the customs union is a choice of the UK, which is consistent with another stated aim of the UK government — to secure new trade agreements with other countries or blocs.
Customs union membership would constrain the UK in doing such trade deals.
However, leaving the customs union and signing trade agreements with other countries or blocs would allow goods from other countries to enter the UK subject to different and possible more favourable conditions than would apply to the same goods entering the EU directly.
In such circumstance, without customs controls, goods benefitting from favourable import conditions into the UK could avail of this route into the EU, thereby undermining the EU’s external trade policy.
Under such a regime, third country imports that enter the EU via the UK could
constitute unfair competition to Irish and EU businesses.
Interestingly the policy paper on customs arrangements states the UK government will protect UK businesses from unfair competition, an aim shared by Ireland and the EU.
Thus, the aim of the UK to leave the customs union and sign trade agreements with other countries contradicts the aim to avoid a customs border.
This has significant
implications for the aim to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and
Any customs controls that are necessitated by the actions of the UK government will make it more difficult to avoid some form of border controls for goods trade particularly along the only land border between the UK and the EU.
While the policy paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland stresses the need to find an innovative solution, it does not offer any detailed suggestions.
The contradictions implied in the policy papers might reflect diverging views within the UK
There might also be a lack of understanding of the necessary reaction by the EU to some of the changes the UK aims to make in the wake of Brexit which are aimed to gain an economic advantage.
Alternatively, the very laudable general aims put forward by the UK, which may not be achieved due to the changes envisaged by the UK government are aimed at laying the blame for any negative impact from Brexit at the door of the EU.
However, as noted above Brexit is a unilateral decision by the UK and thus any negative impact is due to that decision.
Dr Edgar Morgenroth is an associate research professor at the ESRI, and has published
a number of studies on the
impact of Brexit.
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