Boris Johnson Sows Confusion Over Northern Irish Trade After Brexit

Robert Hutton

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments in Northern Ireland, filmed on a mobile phone and released on Twitter, seemingly contradict what his own government has said about the Brexit deal he negotiated. What’s going on?

The Background

Politicians in Northern Ireland are worried the deal creates a border between them and Great Britain, the island that makes up most of the United Kingdom. And businesses in Northern Ireland are worried that goods will be subject to new checks as they cross the Irish Sea.

Johnson’s claim that there will be no checks puts him at odds with his own Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay -- who had to go to Parliament last month to clarify the prime minister’s policy.

Goods Going From GB to NI: What Johnson Said

“There will not be checks on goods going from GB to NI that are not going on to Ireland. That’s the whole point.”

Goods Going From GB to NI: What Barclay Said

“Goods that are not at risk of moving to the European Union will attract no tariffs. Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that are destined for the European Union will have to comply with European Union rules. To ensure that the correct tariffs are applied and that goods comply with the rules of the single regulatory zone, some information will be needed on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.”

Sam Lowe, trade researcher at the Center for European Reform, said the effect of the deal is to place the EU’s external border in the Irish Sea. “There will be checks,” he said.

Goods Going from NI to GB: What Johnson Said

“The great thing that people have misunderstood about this is that there will not be checks -- I say this as prime minister of the U.K. and a passionate unionist -- there will not be checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Because we’re the government of the U.K. and we will not institute or implement or enact such checks.”

Goods Going from NI to GB: What Barclay Said

“The deal also explicitly allows the U.K. to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. There will be minimal targeted interventions.”

According to Lowe, what those checks will look like is a live question. “There are certain obligations we will have to meet. Businesses will have to make exit declarations. But there might be flexibility in how that’s done. We’re in a unique situation, where the U.K. is the regulator on both sides of the border. So it’s conceivable that we could find a different way of doing that.”

So Really, No Checks?

Challenged by a member of his audience, who said he’d been told his staff would have to fill in forms, Johnson gave this commitment:

“If somebody asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister, and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin. There will be no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”

Is that really right? Lowe was skeptical. “He’s giving massively big assurances without any detail about how it would work,” he said.

--With assistance from Greg Ritchie and Thomas Penny.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Hutton in London at rhutton1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tim Ross at tross54@bloomberg.net, Edward Evans, Thomas Penny

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