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Artillery Row

Is Michael Gove’s Brexit Oven-Ready?

What is the Government going to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol?

Residents of Dover will be relieved that the Government is seeking to avoid turning the Channel port into a bottleneck, preferring instead to locate the customs posts and lorry parks further inland. Less reassured are the inhabitants of those nearby towns and villages who may consequently find themselves playing host to the facilities. At least five sites in Kent are envisaged.

“May” and “envisaged” because with only five months to go before Britain becomes – in the customs sense – an island again, the sites have not been confirmed, let alone the land purchased or the hardhats donned. Protestors will grasp at compliance with environmental impact assessments and any other legal means available to ensure the infrastructure of taking back control is not within their own vista. Consequently, the Government’s insistence that everything will be in place on time represents the sort of “can do” attitude more associated with countries where planning laws are there to facilitate state-directed economic planning, rather than defend the neighbours from it.

MPs, most notably the member for Ashford, Damien Green, were keen to interrogate Michael Gove on where, how, and with what consultation all this infrastructure was to be bulldozed through. Further evidence of the faith the government places in the energising effects of a fast approaching final whistle came with the revelation that from next year 400 million customs declarations annually are anticipated and HMRC are waiting until November to test the IT required.

The Government may be cutting it fine, but one of Michael Gove’s intentions in his statement to the Commons this Monday afternoon was to galvanise British business into preparatory action mode.

In doing so, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s statement was supported by the publication of The Border and Protocol Delivery Group’s (BPDG) 206 pages of guidance for businesses on the measures they need to have in place. Whilst major companies appear to be already on top of this, only about a third of smaller companies who trade with Europe have so far engaged with a process that includes applying for a GB EORI number, hiring a customs intermediary and preparing for the VAT implications. They will be encouraged to get a shift on with the launch of a new government advertising campaign. Entitled “UK’s New Start. Let’s Get Going!” it is a slogan of such 1980s energising naffness that even Gove could not suppress a smirk as he proclaimed it from the Commons despatch box.

Many SMEs may be reluctant to prepare for Britain’s “New Start” because they are awaiting the resolution of the Frost-Barnier talks and a successfully concluded FTA ensuring they do not need to bother with any of this tiresome bumf. If so, they are under a misapprehension. As today’s guidance makes clear in bold type, “The UK’s negotiations with the European Union will have no impact on the need to take these actions.”

Although the Government has announced over £700 million to ensure the necessary infrastructure, IT and staff hires, it is impossible to avoid the impression of a non-functioning alarm clock, missed breakfast and a sprint for the bus. This shortage of time has necessitated the three stages in which customs regulations will be imposed next year (all basic records of imported good to be kept by January so that declarations can be filed within six months; pre-notification and health checks on animal produce and plants from April; full customs declarations from July).

the Northern Ireland Protocol remains the currently un-oiled hinge upon which much of the reality of Brexit turns

Government lawyers are confident that this staggered approach to customs implementation is WTO-compliant. The (leaked) letter to Rishi Sunak and Gove sent on 8 July from the Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, was notably keen for reassurance on that point, pleading, “I would appreciate your assurance that full border checks for EU-GB good will be implemented no later than July 2021” in order to avoid Britain being open to a WTO legal challenge.

The frankness of Liz Truss’s language to Gove and Sunak on implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol is worth quoting at length. She writes, “I understand that the digital delivery of the dual tariff system (both EU and UK tariff) in Northern Ireland is a high risk and that HMRC are planning to apply the EU tariff as a default to all imports in NI on 1 January 2021. This is very concerning as this may call into question NI’s place in the UK’s customs territory. Failure to deliver the UK tariff digitally in NI, would have political, legal, and reputational risks. I am keen to see HMRC and BPDG delivery plans, specifically on how both the UK and EU tariff will be digitally implemented, including detailed mitigations, and where there are risks to delivery by 1 January 2021

Whatever may or may not be agreed between David Frost and Michel Barnier, the Northern Ireland Protocol remains the currently un-oiled hinge upon which much of the reality of Brexit (to say nothing of the completeness of the United Kingdom) turns. It is a subject upon which the Prime Minister exudes a level of confidence that makes even his admirers wonder if he has fully grasped it. Whilst previously stating in a House of Lords select committee on future relations with the EU that the Protocol could be amended or rendered superfluous, Gove has yet to expand upon the initiatives underway to that end.

In his Commons statement today, Gove confirmed that guidance on the Protocol would be provided “in the coming weeks.” Anyone with an interest in how the UK will function after Great Britain leaves the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union but Northern Ireland does not, should ready themselves for this enlightenment before Parliament rises for its summer recess on 29 July.

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