Boris Johnson personally raised the controversial issue of businesses having to fill in export forms on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in a phone call with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on the morning the Brexit deal was agreed, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Juncker insisted that the matter could not be renegotiated. Shortly afterwards, in a follow-up call, Johnson agreed to the deal, thereby accepting the need for the forms.
The revelation, confirmed by two separate sources, shows the prime minister was fully aware that the issue of export forms would be problematic back home, but signed off on it anyway in order to secure the agreement with the European Union.
A Downing Street spokesperson denied that the two leaders talked about specifics over the phone.
Johnson defended the arrangement at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, insisting that they did not constitute customs checks. “There will be no checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain,” he said.
The forms, known as entry and exit summary declarations, are to ensure that goods leaving a customs area are all accounted for and are not at risk of entering the black market.
Strictly speaking, the forms do not constitute customs checks, but are an administrative procedure also required to meet international obligations, for example, to prevent the illegal trade of endangered species. The measures are also used to assess whether foods exiting or entering could put citizens at risk.
But the requirement for businesses sending goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has emerged as one of the most controversial aspects of Johnson’s revised withdrawal agreement, with the Democratic Unionist Party and Labour going as far as suggesting that they constituted invasive checks between two parts of the UK.
DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson said the need for declarations was a “clear breach of UK government commitment in Joint Report of 2017 to allow unfettered access to GB market for NI businesses”. He said it represented a border in the Irish Sea and that no Conservative MP should support the deal.
On Monday, Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay faced embarrassment after he initially claimed that Northern Irish businesses sending goods to Britain would not have to complete the forms. He later clarified that in fact they would.
Asked at a House of Lords EU committee hearing on Monday by Labour peer Stewart Wood whether Northern Irish firms exporting to the UK would have to fill out the declarations, Barclay replied: “No, because we’ve said in terms of from Northern Ireland to Great Britain that it would be frictionless.”
Later on during the same session, Barclay clarified: “Just to be clear, the exit summary declarations will be required in terms of Northern Ireland to Great Britain.”
The government’s impact assessment of the withdrawal agreement bill stated that Great Britain businesses sending goods to Northern Ireland would face costs of £15 to £56 per declaration.
For Northern Irish businesses sending goods to Great Britain, it claimed: “Due to data limitations it has not been possible to monetise the associated additional costs to business.”
The EU waives similar administrative procedures for Norway and Switzerland, who are outside the EU's customs union. Trade experts suggest that the UK could receive similar treatment if it aligns with the EU on standards for goods, customs procedures, and customs risk management. The issue is ultimately for the UK to decide about the trade-offs it is prepared to make in its future relationship with the EU.
Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said: "These declarations are lodged electronically where they are then assessed on the basis of risk. Presumably for NI exports to GB this process could be streamlined, considering that it is UK authorities operating on both sides of the sea.
“The EU has agreements with Norway and Switzerland to waive entry summary declarations, so presumably the UK could agree something similar, although it would require alignment on the Union Customs Code.”