Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney yesterday said Ireland wants a "shared customs territory" where the same rules and regulations would apply on both sides of the border post Brexit.
Former British prime minister John Major just last week said a customs union was the only way to avoid a hard border. He was speaking at the Irish embassy in London.
Charles Lewington, chief executive of Hanover Communications and a former press secretary to John Major, disagrees with his former boss. He thinks Britain decided it wanted a clean break from the European Union, and that meant leaving the single market and leaving the customs union.
He said the question on the table at the moment is whether the new customs partnership would work. Mr Lewington wondered whether the technology is there to enable a customs partnership "because the principle that sits behind the partnership is that the UK would have to collect the tariffs for the EU on behalf of the goods going into Europe, and a lot of people argue that that would be very cumbersome and put a burden on business, and it could well deter non-EU countries from cutting trade deals with the UK".
Mr Lewington said there is an awful lot of detail to cut through, and thus far the European Commission has not been very supportive of this model.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said no to technology at the border and no to infrastructure at the border, so is technology a moot point? "I think he was referring to the use of technology under a different model which is known as the Maximum Facilitation model for the north south border which is where you would use more cameras to reduce frictions while at the same time striking a zero tariff free trade deal with the EU," Mr Lewington explained.
He pointed out that there are already number plate recognition cameras on the border but he admitted that more infrastructure "even of a camera kind" would raise concerns about the UK as a surveillance state, and it would unsettle nationalists. He said the UK still doesn't appear to have a technology solution for tracking the hundreds of thousand of small trader movements, and livestock that will go across the border. "I think there are technology solutions. The question is whether they will be ready on time for our departure from the European Union in 2021," Mr Lewington said.
The former prime ministerial advisor said he was not sure what Minister Coveney's suggestion of a "shared customs territory" actually meant. "There's lots of language being bandied around at the moment. One thing that is certain, that whatever emerges from these negotiations, it won't be called any of these things, it'll be called something completely different."
He said Theresa May has said that she wants an open and different partnership with the European Union, and that involves a lot of sharing and compromise. "The thing that concerns a lot of my business clients is that up until now there has been too much grandstanding by the Conservative right, by the Remainers, by Michel Barnier and to an extent your Taoiseach. I think everybody should be careful what they wish for, because there probably is a compromise solution somewhere in the middle there and we just need to talk more about the solutions and less about the problems."
Charles Lewington will be speaking at Retail Excellence Ireland in Citywest Hotel and Convention Centre on Wednesday, where he will be discussing the challenges and opportunities that Brexit offers Irish retailers.
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