The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator has acknowledged that there could be a risk of smuggling across the border in Northern Ireland under proposals put forward by Boris Johnson on Wednesday.
David Frost was asked about the issue at a meeting with European officials in Brussels where Britain’s proposals were presented, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussions that took place.
“He replied that he recognised that the system only worked for those who wanted to comply,” one of the sources said. Frost went on to argue that the smuggling of illicit goods was about criminality, intelligence sharing and law enforcement, the source added.
The explanatory note and letter published by the UK government on Wednesday makes no explicit mention of smuggling.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: "Our proposals are a proportionate approach to managing risk across the border. This reflects the risk-based approach we take now as an EU Member State and any controls will be supplemented by cooperation between authorities to ensure we can effectively tackle and prevent non-compliance."
The spokesperson added: "We are putting down proposals in the legal text to strengthen police cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to police customs and exchange information. [There is] already cooperation on excise / VAT fraud across the border — we’re building on that."
Johnson’s new Brexit plan would see Northern Ireland leave the EU's customs territory and tax regime, effectively creating a customs border with the Republic of Ireland that requires checks to be carried out. Johnson wants these checks to take place away from the actual border at traders’ premises or other designated locations.
Frost also told the officials that the UK wants the EU to adapt its customs code to fit the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, including by providing wholesale derogations for small businesses.
“Customs is obviously the biggest challenge,” a senior EU official said of the prime minister’s proposals.
At the same time, Northern Ireland would maintain the European Union’s rules on agriculture, food and all goods, while the rest of the UK could diverge from these. This part of the proposed package, seen as something of a concession on the UK side and described as “positive” by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in a phone call with Johnson, creates a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The prime minister’s plan would also hand Northern Ireland's executive — which has been suspended since January 2017 — and its assembly the power to reaffirm or drop the arrangements every four years, an idea also seen as problematic in Brussels.
The EU has publicly welcomed as progress the fact that the UK has put forward a legal text, while warning that a lot more work is still required if a deal is to be reached for when EU leaders meet in two weeks.
However, one senior European government official told BuzzFeed News that the proposals as they stood were a “non starter.”
EU ambassadors are expected to be thoroughly briefed on the UK proposals later this week, once the documents have been carefully analysed.
The EU has consistently said that any plan to replace the so-called backstop — the insurance policy included in the withdrawal agreement guaranteeing that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remains open after Brexit in all circumstances and scenarios, while also protecting the integrity of the EU’s single market — must meet all the objectives of the existing mechanism and be legally operative from the day after Brexit.
Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the proposals "do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop".
Downing Street has been approached for comment.