The first draft of a report into possible substitutes to the Irish border backstop was released in Belfast yesterday.
An expert panel from the Alternative Arrangements Commission was at the University of Ulster to present their recommendations for overcoming the main sticking point in the Brexit process.
The non-governmental panel was set up by think tank Prosperity UK and chaired by two Conservative MPs Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan who supported Remain in the Brexit referendum, but say that they are keen to avoid a no deal departure from the EU.
The commission brought together business representatives, academics, customs and technology experts to examine ways to keep the Irish border open if the UK leaves the customs union and single market post-Brexit but also rejects the controversial backstop — hated by unionists for separating Northern Ireland from the UK, by keeping it closer to those two elements of EU trade.
Last week the commission proposed a range of solutions, including a sophisticated trusted trader scheme for customs declarations, mobile regulatory inspection teams operating away from the border and the formation of a new UK/Ireland single zone for food standards.
They have emphasised that while technology can be part of any overall set of plans, they are not seeking an exclusively technological solution.
At yesterday’s launch, Mr Hands told an audience that the proposals were a way of avoiding a no deal — a scenario which he said would have a much more severe impact on businesses in Northern Ireland.
“Alternative arrangements can be done,” he said. “They are possible, feasible and practicable. These are a set of proposals that we think offer the basis of what could be an agreement on Brexit. What we are trying to avoid here is a no-deal Brexit which I think would be a very considerable burden for businesses in Northern Ireland and across the two islands.
“That’s what we are trying to avoid and that is what the report does in trying to set up a different way of solving the problem and issue of the Irish border.”
Panel chairman Shanker Singham, a former trade lawyer, highlighted that one of the proposals was the establishment of a government fund to help financially support businesses who had to increase their administrative capabilities. He said the arrangements could also be implemented with the use of existing technology.
“Media often says it’s all about technology — it’s not all about technology,” said Mr Singham. “Technology is not the driver for the solution, but it’s equally absurd to say technology plays no role at all.
“Technology has a component — it supports the technical and administrative processes we are talking about.”
Also present yesterday were Frank Dunsmuir, industry lead for customs and borders, Fujitsu, and Hans Maessen, a Dutch independent customs advisor.
But the panel faced challenging questions as they presented their interim proposals (the final report due later this month).
Mary Meehan, deputy chief executive of Manufacturing NI, raised concerns that the proposals would swamp traders in red tape.
Afterwards, she said: “There’s are a lot of shortcomings and gaps within the report and I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in that report.
“Extra bureaucracy and extra costs could mean jobs at the end of the day and at Manufacturing NI we need to protect the jobs within the manufacturing sector.
“Potentially some of our businesses could go out of business with these additional margins that could be put on.
“If you look at the agri-food sector in particular that work on single-digit margins and whose supply chain is so interlinked on a cross-border business — 70% of companies have supply chains across the border — when you consider those working within single-digit margins, companies simply couldn’t sustain that additional cost.”