Brexit: UK backtracks on full EU border checks amid coronavirus crisis

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The new rules will apply to goods coming into the UK from the European Union

The government is to apply much less rigorous EU border checks on imports than it initially had planned, after the Brexit transition period finishes at the end of this year.

The UK had committed to introduce import controls on EU goods in January.

But ministers have agreed to phase in controls until July 2021 to give firms “time to adjust”, with customs forms and tariff fees able to be deferred.

The UK has formally ruled out seeking an extension to the transition period.

The UK left the European Union at the end of January, but the transition period – during which existing trading rules and membership of the single market and customs union apply – lasts until the end of the year.

Opposition MPs have been pushing for it to be extended, with the Scottish and Welsh first ministers warning that exiting the current trading arrangements in just over six months time would be “extraordinarily reckless” given the economic damage and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus epidemic.

But Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Friday that he had “formally confirmed” to the EU that this would not be extended, adding that the “moment” for such a move had “now passed”.

However, there will be an about turn, in the short term at least, on the checks carried out on imports.

In February, Mr Gove said import controls were “necessary” to keep UK borders “safe and secure” and to collect the appropriate taxes.

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Now a “temporary light-touch regime” is planned at ports such as Dover, regardless of whether a deal is done with the EU or not.

Under the revised plan, checks on goods entering Britain will be phased-in in three stages up to the summer of 2021.

  • From 1 January, there will be checks on controlled substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, while standard goods, such as clothes and electronics, will be subject to basic customs procedures, with firms having up to six months to complete customs declarations
  • From 1 April, those importing products of animal origin, including meat, milk or egg products, will have to pre-notify officials and provide the relevant health paperwork
  • By 1 July, all goods will be liable for relevant tariffs and customs declarations. From this moment, there will be an increase in physical checks on livestock, plants and other sanitary and phytosanitary products at ports and other entry points

New border facilities will be built in order to process the required checks either at ports, or where there is not enough space, at “inland sites”.

Ministers said they would consult with ports about what new infrastructure was needed and where it should be located.

The proposals only apply to rules on imports, which the UK will set. Checks on exports to the EU will be determined by Brussels.

‘Time to adjust’

Mr Gove said the arrangements would be introduced in a way that gives businesses affected by coronavirus “time to adjust” but conceded “more work” was needed to ensure the UK was ready.

There will also be £50m in extra funding to support the new customs infrastructure, for IT systems and for recruiting and training new customs brokers and freight forwarders.

The Freight Transport Association welcomed the phasing-in of the new arrangements, saying its “concerns” had been listened to by ministers.

Business lobby group the CBI, said employers struggling with the impact of coronavirus wanted both sides to “find a route through” that protects jobs and living standards across Europe.

Companies “simply aren’t ready for chaotic changes with our biggest trading partner at the end of the year”, said its deputy director general Josh Hardie.

The CBI also welcomed news that Boris Johnson will meet the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament remotely on Monday, as attempts to secure a trade deal with the EU are stepped up.

The negotiating teams have also agreed to “an intensified timetable” for July after the fourth round of negotiations last week failed to reach a breakthrough.

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