The British government has dismissed any prospect of a return to a “hard border” on the island of Ireland after Brexit. It followed the leak of a letter from Boris Johnson in which he appeared to contemplate future customs border checks after the UK leaves the EU.
In the letter, obtained by Sky News, the foreign secretary tells Theresa May 95% of traffic would still pass unchecked if there was a hard border. It comes as the EU is set to publish a draft of its Brexit withdrawal treaty.
The 120-page document, to be unveiled on Wednesday, will refer to three possible options for avoiding physical infrastructure on the Irish border but the only one to be fleshed out will be the government's least-favorite: Northern Ireland staying aligned with European rules and regulations.
The document, marking another major milestone on the UK's road to Brexit, will encapsulate in legally binding text agreements already reached on Ireland, citizens' rights and the UK's so-called divorce bill.
According to reports by Irish broadcaster RTE, the text - which EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said will not contain any surprises - will say that Northern Ireland may be considered part of European Union customs territory after Brexit, alluding to a single regulatory space on the island of Ireland with no internal barriers.
Earlier on Tuesday, foreign secretary Johnson was criticized by opponents for suggesting in a BBC interview the issue of the border could be managed as easily as London's congestion charging zone.
In his letter to the prime minister, Mr. Johnson seeks to play down the exaggerated impression of how important checks are at EU external borders.
He also appears to contemplate a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, writing: Even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95% + of goods pass the border [without] checks.
Following the letter's emergence, Labour called for Mr. Johnson - one of the leading Brexiteers in the cabinet - to be dismissed before he can do any more damage.
This man's ego, and his Brexit at any cost strategy cannot be allowed to jeopardize peace, said shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith. A spokesman for Mr. Johnson said the letter was designed to outline how a highly facilitated border would work and help to make a successful Brexit.
”The letter points out there is a border now, and the task the (cabinet Brexit) committee face is stopping this becoming significantly harder, he said.
It shows how we could manage a border without infrastructure or related checks and controls while protecting UK, Northern Ireland, Irish and EU interests.
He added: We will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border, and will instead seek alternatives that allow us to leave the customs union and take back control of our money, borders, laws and trading policy.
No 10 said it had made it clear on numerous occasions” the UK government will not contemplate a hard border after the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019.