British prime minister Theresa May has stepped up plans to tackle the border question in Brexit talks through a customs scheme once described as “magical thinking” in Brussels.
As quickly as it has been floated, business leaders here and in Britain have said it is “unworkable”.
The scheme, which will be discussed with EU officials this month, would see the UK act as the external frontier for the EU, collecting tariffs and carrying out other checks on imports. It could take years to introduce.
A new ministerial group on the North, including British chancellor Philip Hammond, cabinet office minister David Lidington, and Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, has been set up to oversee planning for the border.
The ‘customs partnership’ plan is one of two customs options being proposed by Mrs May, but the only one that would remove the need for customs checks at the border. However, border checks would be required if Britain departs from EU regulatory standards.
A spokeswoman for the Government said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has consistently stated that his preferred solution to the border would be one based on a satisfactory overall EU-UK relationship.
Any solution will have to deliver on the commitment to avoid a hard border and protect North/South co-operation, while simultaneously protecting the EU’s single market and customs union. It will also need to be spelt out in legal detail, she told the Irish Examiner.
“Some importers are sceptical about Mrs May’s current favoured option of a customs partnership using futuristic technology to track goods,” said one business figure. “That option is really crazy, just not achievable. Its sole purpose is to provide a political solution to the Irish issue.”
Jon Thompson, the permanent secretary at HM Revenue & Customs, said last autumn that setting up an entirely new system that would be “best in class”, like Singapore, would take five to seven years.