The head of the trade body representing Britain’s leading manufacturing companies has warned that the UK-EU customs plan favoured by Eurosceptic ministers such as foreign secretary Boris Johnson for after Brexit is “pie in the sky”.
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the EEF, said in a letter to business secretary Greg Clark that the so-called “maximum facilitation” plan could not be ready by the end of a Brexit transition period in 2020.
He added the proposal had “fundamental flaws”, saying it was both “naive” and “unrealistic” to believe that a high-technology, frictionless border could be delivered by the end of the transition.
“Suggesting ‘max fac’ is a solution to our immediate problems is pie in the sky thinking,” said Mr Phipson.
Under the maximum facilitation plan there would be a customs border between Britain and the EU — including between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — but it would be smoothed by the use of technology, “trusted trader” schemes and the exemption of small companies.
But the EU has warned it could not countenance any scheme that allowed a “backdoor” for smugglers into the bloc’s single market.
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s taoiseach, said on Tuesday that neither of the customs proposals outlined by UK prime minister Theresa May was attractive, although her preferred solution — a so-called customs partnership — might perhaps be made workable.
Mr Varadkar said he initially thought “max fac” was some kind of cosmetic. “Certainly I haven’t seen any detail to date to indicate to me that such a solution would be as functional as make-up or deodorant,” he added.
The customs partnership plan would involve Britain collecting tariffs on behalf of Brussels and mirroring EU customs rules at its borders. The EU has asked for more details of the scheme but has previously labelled it “magical thinking”.
Mr Phipson said in his letter to Mr Clark that resolution of the customs issue was “crucial” for manufacturers.
He said on a visit last week he had examined the border between Canada and the US, which relies on technology to fast-track some goods between the two countries.
Mr Phipson told Mr Clark the challenges of developing the US-Canada arrangements — which took decades to develop and billions of dollars in investment — put into sharp focus the challenges to creating such a border from scratch.
Only 100 of the “most trusted” Canadian companies, Mr Phipson told the business secretary, were able to use the fast-track system.