Is the Irish border really the unsolvable Brexit problem the EU Commission would have us believe?
It keeps coming up, on Any Questions, Question Time, Daily Politics and so on. It is presented, especially by the ignorant or duplicitous (those with Brexit-preventing intent?), as a deal-breaker, an unsolvable barrier to Brexit.
We are told by the EU Commission that a system for the Irish border must be agreed before the interminable talks move on. There is no doubt a false worry about avoiding a ‘hard border’, and probably crocodile tears about the Good Friday Agreement. If anyone wants a ‘hard border’ or the threat of it, it is the EU, not the UK or Irish governments or peoples.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to pretend that all this could be resolved without properly understanding the nature of the ongoing EU/UK relationship, including mutual respect for standards and non-tariff barriers to trade, and Michel Barnier must know that. This is much more than discourtesy from the Commission, it is simply not negotiation in good faith and with goodwill.
Much of the talk is about lorries queued up waiting ‘to clear Customs’, as if the speakers do not know that in the 21st century Customs all over the world are moving to instant electronic clearance and (if needed) ‘Post Clearance Audit’ at traders’ premises.
After 36 years in UK Customs and several years advising Customs Services internationally (some of it for the EU), it is quite plain to me that, with goodwill, a frictionless post-Brexit Irish border could be developed. Goods would be cleared electronically, instantly, much as they are today, in vast quantities, from all over the world, at Heathrow.
The proposed system would use an enhanced ‘Trusted Trader’ or ‘Authorised Economic Operator scheme’ based on the successful model of the US/Canada border, as described in the Daily Telegraph and which David Davis has allegedly visited.
Goodwill is the key word. It seems clear that the EU Commission, at least, is not operating with goodwill or in the interests of the Irish Republic or even of other member states. It is, in my view, using the Irish border as a stick to unnerve the UK – maybe even to try to reverse the Brexit decision. Some politicians and public figures/commentators, with little real understanding of modern Customs procedures, are falling for it, or mischievously using it for their own ends.
The best long-term interests of Ireland, in a changing world, would probably be to join the UK outside the EU, in an English-speaking mutually co-operative zone, free of the EU protectionist tendency and with the continuing free movement of people and rights to settle or work which we have had for generations in what is called the Common Travel Area.That is ultimately for Ireland to decide, but in deciding they should recognise that with the UK gone, the benefits for Ireland of EU membership are very limited indeed, and likely to be very much less than hitherto. Ireland is certainly extraordinarily dependent on trade with the UK and apparently, even after the Brexit vote, becoming more so. If Ireland chooses not to join the UK outside the EU, or perhaps is not yet ready, we should respect that decision and work with mutual goodwill to develop the system I describe.
Even in the depths of the Troubles, Irish Customs and UK Customs were able to work together with mutual trust and in secrecy.
Future co-operation could be enhanced by a jointly staffed Irish/UK Customs Co-operation Unit and an additional Protocol legally obliging both parties to deal with routine control and transgressions in either direction and to deepen the already strong co-operation.
There will be transgressions, as there are now, on any border.
Different VAT and Excise duty, especially hydrocarbon oils duty and other charges against business, always make for criminal opportunism. But as history has shown Customs services the world over, none of this is unsurmountable, given goodwill.
Goodwill is the important word. Let us have some, Monsieur Barnier.