UK Prime Minister Theresa May has rejected a draft EU proposal for implementing Brexit over the way it handles the question of Ireland’s customs. The proposal would require customs officials in Northern Ireland to abide by EU regulations in order to minimize trade disruption with the Republic of Ireland, the only EU member state that shares a land border with the UK. Both sides want to avoid reimposing the “hard border” that existed from the Troubles of the 1970s until the IRA ceasefire in the mid-1990s.

But May pointed out that the European Commission proposal would shift the problem, not end it, and create a customs barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“The draft legal text that the commission has published would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, and no UK prime minister could ever agree to it,” she said Wednesday. “I will be making it crystal clear to [EC president Jean-Claude Juncker] and others that we will never do so. We are committed to ensuring that we see no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but [a previous bargain with the EU] also made it clear that there should continue to be trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as there is today.”

For UK shipping interests, the prospect of a separate customs regime in Northern Ireland could be a challenge – though perhaps less of a challenge than that facing the English Channel ro/ro ports. The imposition of customs checks on cross-Channel traffic could snarl the busy ports of Dover and Holyhead, the UK’s shipping association warns.

For this traffic to and from the EU, the European Commission’s draft proposal includes a two-year transition period that could allow customs officials to continue to treat British shipments as European Union goods (and vice-versa). However, EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier warned that the two sides still had “significant divergences” over the terms of a transition period, and these will need to be worked out if it is to be a part of the final Brexit agreement.


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