Northern Ireland customs protocol could thwart Brexit plans

Molly Blackall
Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Northern Ireland customs arrangements may thwart Boris Johnson’s plan to leave the EU by December 2020, according to a document said to be leaked from civil servants in the Department for Exiting the EU.

In the document, seen by the Financial Times, staff raised concerns about the readiness of the new customs arrangement, calling the protocol to keep part of the EU customs code in Northern Ireland, a “major” obstacle to Brexit delivery.

The FT reported that the document was sent to senior Whitehall officials last week and said that implementing the Northern Ireland protocol before next December was a “strategic, political and operational challenge”.

The protocol would implement a form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – an alternative arrangement to the Northern Irish “backstop” in the withdrawal agreement.

Civil servants reportedly highlighted the “legal and political” repercussions both within the UK and Europe of failing to deliver Brexit on time, which Boris Johnson has made the focal issue of his election campaign.

Doubt was also cast on the free-trade agreement that Johnson has pledged to establish with the EU next year, with the document, marked “official sensitive”, reportedly stating that “delivery on the ground would need to commence before we know the outcome of negotiations”.

The government said it did not comment on leaks, but insisted that its deal with the EU would comprehensively withdraw the whole of the UK – including Northern Ireland. It reiterated its commitment to complete the process before December 2020.

The exposure came after Labour released leaked Treasury reports last week that concluded customs checks could be required on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, with the possibility that tariffs could also be imposed.

Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, and the government’s impact assessment have both suggested checks could be implemented.

Despite this, Johnson told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge that the report was “wrong”, in an interview on Sunday morning, insisting that there “won’t be checks” on the goods.

However, the prime minister did admit that some customs checks for items crossing the Irish Sea would be put in place after Brexit but said these would only be applied to goods travelling to the Republic of Ireland.