UK firms search for new Irish trade routes to avoid Brexit customs woes

LONDON — Major U.K. companies, including big supermarkets, are eyeing up alternative trade routes across the Northern Irish border in the hope of getting around costly post-Brexit customs checks.

Officials who work closely with industry told POLITICO that firms had last year put plans in place to take advantage of the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and are looking at doing the same ahead of the transition period ending in December.

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement says there will be checks on goods moving across the frontier between Ireland in the EU and Northern Ireland in the U.K. but that they will be done remotely to ensure a hard border is not created. It also says there will be checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea in both directions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

But the nature of those checks and how the systems will work remains unclear. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists Britain will not actually impose vetting in either direction across the Irish Sea. The EU’s Michel Barnier said Thursday that British negotiator David Frost had reassured him the U.K. will “respect its legal obligations” when it comes to the agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

All borders between the EU and the U.K., aside from the one on the island of Ireland, will face customs checks, the government has confirmed, raising the specter of big administrative costs for business and major delays at border pinch points.

Some household name firms are looking at using the porous Irish border to avoid customs procedures altogether, even those that the government hopes to have in place by January 1.

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