Business First September 2017 Business First September 2017 - Page 25

he UK’s withdrawal from the European Union has thrown up unquestionably complex challenges for policy makers and constitutional experts alike. None more so than resolving future arrangements for the Irish border. That was precisely the unenviable challenge faced by the Government in recent weeks when it published a position paper on the specific Northern Ireland – Republic of Ireland dimension to Brexit. T So what did the paper say and how will it affect businesses in all parts of the all­island single market? The first thing to recognise is that the paper is a step in the right direction. While it’s unlikely to silence any critics, progress has been made, even if we do remain some distance from our final destination. That the border issue is being addressed so early in the negotiation process shows just how significant a priority this is for both the UK Government and the European Commission. It also shows the impact the issue could have on wider discussions about a future UK/EU trading relationship. There are some positive steps Starting with the positives, businesses across Northern Ireland will welcome the UK Government’s recognition of the unique position we face as the only part of the UK that shares a land border with the EU. They will also welcome the commitment to upholding the principles of the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement which not only laid the foundations of political stability in the region but created a vital platform for economic prosperity. Maintaining the Common Travel Area (CTA) and associated rights, a commitment to avoiding a hard border for the movement of goods and aiming to preserve North­South and East­West cooperation, including on energy, are all hugely welcome. The importance of the CTA in particular cannot be understated – ensuring that Some politicians and others have suggested that technology will have a major role to play in any new customs and border arrangements however we cannot rely on technology alone. families and communities can move freely across the border is vitally important to how people go about their daily lives and companies manage their operations. Is the devil in the detail? While these measures all represent a move in the right direction, the devil may well be in the detail and businesses will need further clarity before they can fully get behind the proposals. The avoidance of a hard border for goods remains a particular challenge. With current proposals too vague, businesses may continue to hold back on making crucial decisions about investment and business strategy until this is further resolved. What will cause further concern for business is the feasibility of newly proposed customs models and their ability to meet the ambitious criteria set out in the Government’s position paper. Looking at existing arrangements, only the UK’s continued membership of a Customs Union can simultaneously avoid the need for physical border infrastructure between both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Anything else takes us down the route of a new and unprecedented customs arrangement. New and innovative solutions are clearly needed however we know these can also come with the kind of uncertainty that businesses on both sides of the border are keen to avoid. Some approaches currently being considered, such as customs exemptions for smaller firms, ‘trusted traders’ schemes for larger businesses and equivalence agreements to resolve Sanitary and Phytosanitary measures, all have their pros and cons, with further detail needed to determine whether they could work in practice. Some politicians and others have suggested that technology will have a major role to play in any new customs and border arrangements however we cannot rely on technology alone. Looking for a flexible and constructive approach Additionally the paper places significant emphasis on the EU to adopt a flexible and constructive approach. While we know that there is considerable recognition on both sides of the table of the specific economic, political and cultural issues, we also know that negotiations will be tough and concessions hard to come by. With businesses keen to see swift progress on these issues, the red lines and brinksmanship common in any negotiation could have the potential to cause further unwelcome uncertainty. While it would have been unrealistic to assume that the UK Government’s paper would deliver the clear and detailed solutions business and others need, it has at least advanced the discussion considerably. In the absence of a functioning Executive at Stormont, huge responsibility has fallen once more on business to bring clarity of thought and genuine expertise to the debate. Businesses of all sizes and from all sectors will now take time to reflect on the position papers in the knowledge that each proposal has the potential to significantly alter political, economic and cultural life for all Northern Irish citizens. Contemplation will not be taken lightly, indeed the insights that business provide could well be the ones that help broker the best possible outcome for all. 23