Customs White Paper faces both ways

Customs White Paper faces both ways

There is by now a well-established procedure in the Brexit debate that involves you or me  or Michel Barnier asking the British government what they intend to do about this or that and getting a reply on the lines of: “What we would to see is a situation in which this or that will not be necessary and we hope that our friends in Europe will agree.” The White Paper on the Customs Bill that would provide for “a standalone customs regime from day one  … if there is no negotiated settlement” may look different, look like a genuine attempt to get a grip on hard reality, but it’s not really.

The customs regime envisaged would include “…setting tariffs and quotas, and establishing a goods classification system in line with the government’s WTO obligations.”

This may well be the first significant mention of the World Trade Organisation’s tariff system. And there is a whiff of realism in the view that: “The impact is likely to be greatest where goods are travelling in vehicles (e.g. HGVs, vans, etc.). This is partly because the time available for processing declarations is far shorter than goods arriving at container ports where there can be many hours between the ship docking and the goods being unloaded and then re-loaded onto a vehicle which then removes them from the port.”

But having warned of port tailbacks, then it launches into visionary descriptions of a ‘highly streamlined customs arrangement’ between the UK and the EU and ‘Ensuring UK-EU trade is as frictionless as possibl”, with “a port IT system, linked to customs declarations and vehicle registration numbers so that vehicles were not required to stop at the border, enabling traffic to flow smoothly.”

Then comes the ‘having our cake and eating it’ paragraph: “One potential approach the UK intends to explore further with the EU would involve the UK acting in partnership with the EU to operate a regime for imports that aligns precisely with the EU’s external customs border, for goods that will be consumed in the EU market, even if they are part of a supply chain in the UK first. The UK would need to apply the same tariffs as the EU, and provide the same treatment for rules of origin for those goods arriving in the UK and destined for the EU.”

It seems even this high-tech, frictionless, agreed border regime will not be good enough for us in Ireland; we are to get something faster and better: “Under the highly streamlined customs arrangement, the UK believes it would need to go still further to agree specific facilitations for the Northern Ireland-Ireland land border. A cross-border trade exemption acknowledges that many of the movements of goods across the land border are by smaller traders operating in a local economy, and they cannot be properly categorised or treated as economically significant international trade. The cross-border trade exemption would ensure that smaller traders could continue to move goods with no new requirements in relation to customs processes at the land border.” Once again, they are really describing a situation they would like to see others agreeing to, not putting forward firm proposals for what they intend to do within the UK’s legal regime. The problem they face, of course, is that anything firmer done as an internal UK action could look very much like special status.

The final phrase on the Northern Ireland border descends even further into Brexit-speak: “The nature of the border clearly means that all sides must aim for an agreed, reciprocal solution.” We invite you to try to nail that particular bit of porridge to a wall of your choice. It is utterly devoid of political meaning and clearly designed to be so.