Brexiteer plans for a new EU customs deal have been ridiculed by Irish PM Leo Varadkar as less use than a women’s ‘deodorant’.
Amid increasing signs that Brussels views the option as unworkable, Varadkar openly mocked the so-called “max-fac”, or “maximum facilitation”, idea of using technology to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
The proposal is one of the Government’s two options for trade rules after Brexit and is strongly backed by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley underlined Cabinet divisions over the issue on Wednesday, declaring that May’s preferred option of a ‘customs partnership’ was an “easier” way of solving border problems than the Brexiteers’ plan.
Her remarks appeared to echo Varadkar, who told the Irish Parliament that while the PM’s proposal could be the basis for an agreed deal, the rival idea would never work.
In his most defiant remarks yet, he seized on the fact that the ‘max-fac’ proposal sounded like the cosmetics firm Max Factor.
“I believe the customs partnership is closer to being made workable than the maximum-facilitation proposal or max-fac which ... I had thought was some form of make-up or deodorant,” he said.
“I have certainly not seen to date any detail that indicates that such a solution would be as functional as make-up or a deodorant.
“We are not drawing up any plan for a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, full stop. There is not going to be one.”
Johnson has savaged May’s customs partnership as “crazy”, claiming it would effectively turn UK officials into tax collectors on behalf of the EU. Gove said it was so “flawed” it was unlikely to be delivered on time.
Yet Bradley told the Commons European Scrutiny Committee that both proposals had “defects”, but one was clearly preferable to the other.
“There is no doubt that a customs partnership hybrid model makes the Irish border situation easier, there is no doubt that the question of the Irish border is resolved by the customs partnership in an easier way than maximum facilitation.”
The Brexit Department will next month publish a 100-page ‘white paper’ setting out the UK’s latest proposals for exiting the EU and May hopes to have achieved Cabinet unity on customs by then.
Ahead of next month’s crunch EU summit, Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned this week that he felt that neither of the Tory plans was “realistic”.
Sweden’s Europe minister Ann Linde revealed that Barnier had told a meeting of EU27 diplomats that “the two British proposals the Cabinet is disagreeing about — none of them are realistic…so he thinks it’s unnecessary to fight about it”.
The ‘Max Fac’ idea assumes that the UK can avoid the need for border checks by using ‘trusted trader’ schemes and new technology that tracks the journey of goods.
HuffPost UK understands that Brussels sees serious problems with the plan, including the risk that exemptions would lead to a growth in small firms that could avoid strict EU rules on standards on everything from toy safety to pesticide strength.
The EU believes that ‘Max Fac’ cannot be the solution to the border problem, but contrary to some reports it has not killed off May’s customs partnership idea, mainly because it allows a hybrid form of customs cooperation.
Both UK plans fail to address trade standards alignment, VAT and “rules of origin” agreement needed to avoid Northern Ireland border checks.
The EU thinks it can adapt if the UK Parliament votes to stay in a customs union, should MPs defeat the Government on a motion on the final deal later this year.