LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom could propose giving Northern Ireland joint UK and European Union status so it can trade freely with both, in an attempt to break the deadlock in Brexit negotiations, a government official said.
The idea would be to create a 10-mile (16-km)-wide trade buffer zone along the border for local traders such as dairy farmers after the UK leaves the bloc, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The plan is one of several being discussed and may not be proposed to the EU, the official said.
Inspiration for the dual-regulatory system has been taken from Lichtenstein, which is able to operate both the Swiss and the EU-linked European Economic Area regimes at the same time.
The Department for Exiting the European Union said it had already suggested “two viable future customs arrangements” and did not comment on the new proposal. The existing proposals are using technology to ease border traffic, and creating a new “customs partnership” with the EU.
The idea of giving Northern Ireland joint UK and European Union status would probably be opposed by the Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party, that supports Prime Minister Theresa May’s minority government.
The DUP has said it would oppose any Brexit deal that sees the province operate under different regulations to the rest of the United Kingdom.
Martina Anderson, a member of the European Parliament for Sinn Fein, the main Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland, said the proposal would not solve the border issues.
“Once again this shows the lack of knowledge of border areas and the concerns they face,” Anderson said. “The creation of a buffer zone would merely move the problem away from the border and hide a hard border in a buffer zone.”
DECADES OF VIOLENCE
A spokesman for Ireland’s department of foreign affairs declined to comment specifically on the proposal, but urged Britain to engage with the EU in a more detailed way on finding a solution to the border, including a backstop option that would keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union.
Both the UK and the EU are committed to keeping a free flow of people and goods over the Irish border without returning to checkpoints — symbols of the three decades of violence in the region largely ended by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
However, finding a practical solution for any customs checks needed after Brexit is proving elusive.
The new proposal would create a special economic zone that would allow traders, who constitute 90 percent of cross-border traffic, to operate under the same rules as those south of the border, according to The Sun newspaper, which first reported that the idea was being considered.
May previously pledged to take the UK out of the EU customs union by considering two options. One would be “max fac” in which the UK and EU would be entirely separate customs areas but would try to use technology to reduce friction and costs at the border.
The other option being considered is a customs partnership in which the UK would cooperate with the EU more closely and collect tariffs on its behalf with no requirement of declarations of goods crossing the border.
EU officials are warning time is running out to seal a Brexit deal this year because there has been not enough progress in negotiations, and have criticized May for not setting out how the UK would achieve a frictionless border with the EU without erecting a land border on the island of Ireland.
London suggested last month that it would be willing to extend the use of EU tariffs as a backstop if there were delays in ratification of a Brexit deal.
Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin and Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Robin Pomeroy