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Brexit: Tory MPs say technology key to avoiding hard Irish border

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The future management of the Irish border is one of three main priorities in UK-EU Brexit talks

A hard border on the island of Ireland can be avoided by using “established” technology and “modifying” existing arrangements, Brexiteer Tory MPs say.

The European Research Group said the issue had been allowed to “frame” the talks but need not block a trade deal.

They urged “effective co-operation” between Belfast and Dublin to address smuggling concerns and extra customs forms to be processed via VAT returns.

The EU has insisted on a “backstop” to ensure the single market is protected.

Both the UK and the EU want to avoid a return to physical checks at the Northern Ireland border, but have yet to agree how this can be achieved.

Downing Street said it had looked at the border issue for nearly two years and the prime minister’s Chequers blueprint – which envisages a free trade zone for goods moving between the UK and the EU backed up by a “facilitated customs arrangement” – was the “only credible and negotiable option”.

The BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith said the ERG’s answer to the problem of the Irish border seemed to be that “there isn’t really a problem”.

He said the group was citing the example of the “invisible border” between Norway and Sweden as a precedent for how post-Brexit arrangements might work.

Speaking at the launch of the ERG’s report in London, former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson said he and other MPs were trying to “help the European Union and the UK government” by “giving an answer” to a problem which has risked derailing the Brexit process.

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Media captionWhat will become of the Irish border when the UK leaves the European Union?

He insisted there was “absolutely nothing new” in what the group was proposing because the solutions already exist to deliver “an ordered border”.

He said there was already a tax, VAT, excise and currency border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which was maintained by “administrative and technical tools”.

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This should continue after Brexit, he said, supplemented by a range of mechanisms to ensure customs checks are conducted away from the border, such as trusted trader schemes.

“We absolutely believe there is no need for new physical infrastructure at the border and it can be handled by current means,” he said.

The report acknowledges a range of new checks will be needed on goods passing across the 310 mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit, including extra customs declarations and declarations of origin as well as sanitary, phytosanitary and product compliance procedures.

Among the proposals put forward in the document to deal with these are:

  • Extra customs declarations should be incorporated into existing online system of VAT returns
  • Simplified customs procedures for the majority of cross-border trade
  • Trusted trader-type schemes for large companies
  • Equivalence of UK and EU regulations for agricultural produce
  • Declaring the island of Ireland a Common Biosecurity Zone

The report concluded: “The proposals can be realised within the existing legal and operational frameworks of the UK and EU, based on the mutual trust on which regular trade depends.

“They do nothing to alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and do not violate the principle of consent of the enshrined in the Belfast Agreement.”

There is massive frustration with her leadership, her position on Chequers and the way her proposals tuck the UK closely into the EU in perpetuity. And yes, there are some MPs who want to see her gone immediately.

However senior voices in the European Research Group – yes them – are adamant that it is not the time to try to oust the PM. It would be “stupid”, one told me last night.

Imagine in these critical weeks of the Brexit negotiations if the UK started to try to change the prime minister.

Right now those jostling to remove her know they don’t have any guarantees they would have the numbers to force her out, even though they may well be able to pull together enough MPs to submit letters to the chair of 1922 committee to trigger a contest.

John Campbell, the BBC’s Northern Ireland business and economics editor, said the document offered more detail than before and put forward a number of “plausible technocratic solutions”.

But he said they placed a lot of store on the EU agreeing to mutual recognition of standards and the UK having access to its VAT system – which was far from clear.

The Democratic Unionist Party, whose support Theresa May relies on for her majority in Westminster, said the proposals were “positive and timely” and the issue should not be an impediment to a wider Brexit deal.

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Two former Northern Ireland secretaries were among Tory MPs endorsing the proposals

Speaking before the proposals were published, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the UK could not “walk away” from its responsibilities to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.

“It is not the European Union, it is Brexit that risks making the border more visible in Northern Ireland,” he said.

The CBI said the proposals were “superficial”, while Labour MP Alison McGovern, who backs the People’s Vote campaign for a referendum on the final Brexit deal, said neither the government nor her Tory critics had “any answers” to the question.

“The Good Friday Agreement committed the UK to guaranteeing there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people there,” she said.

“Imposing additional border checks – whether they at the frontier, two miles or 20 miles from it – has no democratic legitimacy.”

Tory MPs opposed to Theresa May’s Chequers blueprint have denied plotting against her, after it emerged the issue of her future was discussed openly by Tory MPs at a meeting on Tuesday night.

“We’ve got a very good prime minister,” former Brexit Secretary David Davis said.

“I disagree with her on one issue, it’s this issue. She should stay in place because we need stability, and we need decent government as the backdrop for what we’re doing in the coming next six months.”

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