Brexit: Single UK-Irish food zone suggested by report

Signs near Irish border

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A report on how to avoid checks on the Irish border after Brexit suggests the UK and Ireland could try to form a new single zone for food standards.

The radical proposal is part of the Alternative Arrangements report.

It is backed by Tory MPs Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands.

Food standards are one of the most difficult border issues due to strict EU rules as food products entering from a non-member state must be subject to checks at the point of entry.

If the UK is outside the single market after Brexit that could mean products being exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic would have to be checked at border inspection posts.

The report from the Alternative Arrangements Commission suggests that one solution could be for Britain and Ireland to form a single zone for food standards.

The rules in the zone would remain closely aligned with the EU to minimise the prospect that goods would have to be checked when entering the continental EU.

If the UK sought to diverge from EU rules then Ireland could revert to the EU regulatory area.

In that scenario, Stormont would then have a vote on whether it wanted to remain aligned with Ireland – which would mean new checks on goods coming into NI from the rest of the UK.

The proposal is likely to face some major hurdles and the commission acknowledges it would be difficult to negotiate.

It would require the EU to accept UK standards as equivalent to EU standards.

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It is likely to be extremely controversial in Ireland as it could be seen as weakening Ireland’s position as a member of the EU single market.

It is also not a guarantee that border checks would not ultimately have to be applied.

The island of Ireland is already a single zone for animal health, meaning all livestock entering NI from GB are subject to checks at Larne Harbour.

The commission says that simply extending that arrangement to cover food standards would resolve many issues.

However, it concludes that such an arrangement could not negotiated at this time, though that could change if a Stormont government is in place.

Another idea around the area of food standards suggests that any checks could take place away from the border.

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Media captionBBC News NI’s political reporter Jayne McCormack explains why the border is an issue

That could mean, for example, Irish government accredited vets inspecting food production facilities in Northern Ireland.

The EU rules on Border Inspection Posts currently allow inspection to happen away from the border if the frontier area has “geographic constraints”.

The Commission suggests this could also be explored in an Irish context.

The geographic constraints rule can apply if a border crossing is somewhere like a narrow mountain pass which would make it hard to construct inspection posts.

That would not seem to apply on somewhere like the main Belfast – Dublin road.

Last week, the UK government announced the first of three expert groups which will also look at “alternative arrangements”.

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The EU has also committed to exploring alternative arrangements once a Withdrawal Agreement is passed.

On Friday, the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) emphasised that whatever alternative arrangements may be proposed any Brexit deal must also include the backstop.

Speaking at the end of an EU summit Leo Varadkar said: “We can’t accept that alternative arrangements are an alternative to a backstop unless we see what they are, know how they would work and see them demonstrated.

“That hasn’t been done yet and I don’t see that being done this side of 31 October, which is why we certainly can’t accept the deletion of the backstop.”

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