Boris Johnson has been warned that a failure to fulfil commitments on the Irish border which he signed up to in his Brexit divorce deal last October will “significantly damage” the UK’s chances of a favourable trade agreement with the EU.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said that the implementation of checks and controls on goods passing from the British mainland to Northern Ireland will be a “test of good faith and trust” for Mr Johnson’s government, without which future relations will not be easy.
And the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier voiced “surprise” at signals from London that the UK has not begun the process of preparing for checks which are due to begin at the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.
He said that a joint committee, including a representative of the European Commission, will be established next month to monitor preparations and ensure the UK is “rigorously” living up to its obligations.
Looking ahead to trade talks due to begin on Monday and conclude by the end of the year, Mr Barnier warned: “If we want to succeed in the very short time that Mr Johnson has chosen, we need to make sure we don’t start backtracking where we should be making progress.”
Under the terms of a protocol to the agreement hammered out last autumn, Northern Ireland is to have a special position after Brexit, retaining the rules of the EU single market in a number of areas but remaining part of the UK customs territory. This was designed to avoid the need for physical infrastructure and controls at the Irish border which might destabilise the peace settlement.
Brussels and Dublin insist that checks will be needed on goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland, in case they then enter the EU by crossing the border into the Republic. Meanwhile, companies sending goods from the North to Britain are expected to face additional bureaucracy, notably the need to file export declaration forms
But Mr Johnson has repeatedly claimed that there would be no checks on goods travelling between different parts of the UK. And suspicions about his intentions have been fuelled in Brussels by reports that he has told his Brexit team to find a way round the implementation of controls.
Despite the need for any new paperwork, inspections and border staff to be in place by the end of this year, the PM’s spokesman said on Monday that ministers “have not asked any ports to prepare for new checks or controls between GB and Northern Ireland”.
Goods moving from Northern Ireland to the mainland would continue to enjoy “unfettered market access” while those travelling in the other direction would not be subject to additional measures “beyond the limited changes introduced by the protocol”, he said.
German Europe minister Michael Roth warned that the UK must not breach the commitments made in last year’s agreement.
“My message is crystal clear to our friends in London – keep your promises, based on the protocol,” he said.
And Mr Coveney warned: “The withdrawal agreement involves significant commitments in the context of Northern Ireland through the Irish protocol that both the EU and the UK need to follow through on.
“If that doesn’t happen then I think it will damage significantly the prospects of being able to get even a bare-bones trade agreement … in place by the end of the year.”
Mr Coveney added: “In some ways the implementation of agreements that have already been struck are a test of good faith and trust, and without good faith and trust building a future relationship is not going to be easy.
“And so if there isn’t progress on the infrastructure needed to implement the Irish protocol as part of the withdrawal agreement in the next few months then I think that is going to be a very worrying signal for whether or not it is going to be possible to conclude something sensible before the end of the year.”
Asked whether he feared the UK was backsliding on its obligations with regard to the Irish border, Mr Barnier said: “I don’t want to impugn anyone’s motives as regards the British attitude. We have certain points where we will remain vigilant and I think there are reasons for us to be vigilant, because the British minister in charge of Northern Ireland has come up with some very surprising statements.”
He added: “We entered into commitments together on 17 October, commitments entered into with Boris Johnson on the conditions for Brexit and an orderly divorce, including the sensitive issue of the stability of peace in Northern Ireland.
“All of this is part of a treaty which has been ratified by the chamber of the House of Commons in London and become British law. We will respect our commitments and we expect the UK to do likewise.”