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Tensions in UK position on Brexit and Irish border need to be ‘settled now' – Lords EU Committee

The House of Lords EU Committee has today written to Karen Bradley MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to raise concerns about the lack of clarity on how the Government will resolve the tensions between its aspirations to leave the customs union, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and ensure no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Committee's letter comes at the end of a follow-up inquiry to a December 2016 report.

The letter says that while there might have been ‘constructive ambiguity' in the December EU/UK Joint Report on UK-Irish issues, any differences of interpretation must, given the imminent publication by the European Commission of a draft legal text based on that Report, be settled now.

The Committee ask the Government to clarify which areas of regulatory alignment will be required under the ‘back-stop' option agreed between the UK and EU in December. While David Davis has suggested that it only covers six areas of North-South cooperation, (agriculture, education, environment, health, tourism and transport), both the European Commission and the Irish Government understand the UK to have made a commitment to far deeper and more widespread alignment. It has been reported that a study by the UK Government and European Commission has identified at least 142 cross-border activities that could be affected by Brexit.

The Committee stress that “the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland cannot be at the expense of new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”.

The Committee heard evidence from Switzerland and Norway about their experience in managing borders with the EU and the potential role for technology to support a frictionless border on the island of Ireland. The Committee concluded that a frictionless border had not yet been achieved by either country, noting that a Swiss programme to digitise customs processes is expected to take nine years to roll out.

The Committee also call on the Government to continue to stress its unreserved commitment to upholding the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in its entirety.

Commenting on the letter, Lord Jay of Ewelme, who co-chaired the inquiry, said:

“In December the Government assured us that the big challenges of Brexit for the island of Ireland could be overcome. But the more you look at the detail of the December agreement, the harder it becomes to reconcile its apparently contradictory commitments.

“The European Commission is about to publish the draft legal text emerging from December's agreement, so any differences in interpretation of what regulatory alignment actually means need to be settled now. We need to know precisely how the UK and EU will both prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and avoid any new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, while the UK also leaves the customs union. We don't yet know how that circle will be squared.

“In a whole range of areas where cross border cooperation is essential, from trade to healthcare and energy security to police cooperation we need to get this right. It is time for the Government to be clear and unequivocal about how it will turn its ambitions into reality.”

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