What do leaked Treasury documents tell us about checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea?

6 December 2019

At a press conference this morning the Labour party unveiled what appears to be a leaked document from the Treasury analysing trade across the Irish Sea post-Brexit.

Asked about this at another press conference later in the day, Boris Johnson said there will be “no checks on goods going from GB to NI, and from NI to GB… one of the great benefits of the deal that we’ve done, is if there is any particular that the people of Northern Ireland don’t like, then… all those provisions automatically lapse in four years’ time. But if there is anything that they don’t like then they can vote to stay in alignment with the EU for those purposes”.

This is not true.

As we have written before, checks will have to take place on goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. What exactly they will look like depends on discussions with the EU. Whether there are checks on goods going in the opposite direction, from Northern Ireland to Great Britain will depend largely on what the UK decides to do, as well as World Trade Organisation rules and some discussions with the EU.

It is worth noting that the leaked documents from the Treasury do not have a date on them, so we can’t say for sure how up-to-date they are. It is not clear that they necessarily represent the settled view of the government, as some have pointed out. We approached the Treasury, which told us that it didn’t comment on leaked documents.

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Great Britain to Northern Ireland

EU tariffs will be applied to selected goods crossing from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland.

There will be customs checks and controls on goods crossing from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland, in order to ensure the correct tariffs are applied and the goods meet EU standards. This also applies to goods entering Northern Ireland from other non-EU countries.

The Treasury documents released this morning by the Labour party spell this out in a little more detail. It says there will be checks on trade going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. These include tariffs (if there is no free trade agreement between the UK and the EU at the end of the transition period), food safety and security checks, and regulatory checks (to check goods coming into Northern Ireland are compliant with EU goods regulation).

The intensity of these checks, and the types of goods that are deemed ‘at risk’, will depend on discussions with the EU.

Northern Ireland to Great Britain

The leaked documents also say that there would need to be checks on food safety and security.

In evidence to the House of Lords EU Committee in October 2019, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay also stated that “exit summary declarations will be required in terms of Northern Ireland to GB [trade]”. This was reiterated by the leaked documents from the Treasury.

But there will be no tariffs on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

The Treasury document highlights the “risk created by unfettered access” of goods moving from Northern Ireland into the rest of the UK. Although there will be some paperwork when goods leave Northern Ireland, the UK could decide it doesn’t want to put in place import controls on goods coming from Northern Ireland. If there are no checks when goods move into the UK then the Treasury sets out that these goods would be “free to be sold within the UK, having circumvented UK tariff and regulatory controls.”

The leaked documents also say that “customs declarations and documentary and physical checks” on trade from Northern Ireland to great Britain and vice versa “will be highly disruptive to the NI economy.” They also add that the Withdrawal Agreement “has the potential to separate NI in practice rom whole swathes of the UK’s internal market.” 

After four years

It’s not correct, as Mr Johnson said, that if there are any terms of the Withdrawal Agreement that people in Northern Ireland don’t like that they would lapse automatically after four years.

The Northern Ireland protocol does include a “consent and exit mechanism”—giving Northern Ireland a chance to agree or disagree with the continuation of the protocol’s trade provisions. The UK will get to decide exactly how this consent is obtained. The UK’s proposals state that this will be via a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The first of these votes would happen four years after the end of the transition period (which is currently set to end in December 2020). Further consent votes would then happen every four or eight years, depending on what kind of majority it passed by on the previous vote. If the Assembly votes against continuing with the protocol’s trade provisions, they will lapse two years after that vote.

But it’s not true that the provisions will automatically lapse; the Northern Ireland Assembly would need to actively vote against them, otherwise they will continue. There is also no mechanism for the people of Northern Ireland to reject “any particular” they don’t like. The consent mechanism as currently planned will be for the whole deal, with no ability to pick and choose.

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