Saturday 2 December 2017

Why Brexiters are flummoxed by the Irish border

In a recent post I mentioned in passing the absurdity of a government spokesperson saying it was unfair for the UK to be excluded from the City of Culture competition since Norway was not. The absurdity, of course, is that Norway is in the EEA and as such is eligible whereas the government have insisted that Brexit also means leaving the EEA.

I commented that it seemed as if despite the endless amount that has been said and written about Brexit discussion still seems to be going round in circles. What I had in mind was the way that throughout the Referendum campaign it was common for leavers to respond to arguments about the economic damage of Brexit by invoking Norway (or Switzerland) as a model. If challenged that this did not meet their desire to end free movement they would then invoke Canada as a model; and when challenged on the economic limitations of this would go back to talking about Norway.

This constant confusion or conflation of fundamentally different versions of what voting for Brexit meant is what gave rise to the still ongoing disputes about how Brexit should now be enacted. Thus many Brexiters still argue for their preferred ‘soft Brexit’ of staying in the single market, whilst many remainers have come to countenance this as the least-worst option. Nevertheless, one might have thought that since the Lancaster House speech which ruled out both single market and customs union membership the hard Brexiters, at least, would have ceased to muddy the waters by dropping references to Norway and Switzerland.

But they have not. As the issue of the Northern Ireland border belatedly comes centre stage all the obfuscations of the campaign have returned. Thus the Daily Mail journalist Andrew Pierce – and he is just a high profile example of many others saying the same thing – opined that the Norway-Sweden border is a model for a “frictionless” Ireland-Northern Ireland border, since Norway is not in the EU. Similarly, Labour Brexiter Kate Hoey has proposed Norway and Switzerland as models for the border.

The obvious point is that, albeit in different ways, both Norway and Switzerland participate in the single market and both are members of EFTA. This in itself considerably simplifies border issues because of regulatory harmonization*. Moreover, both are in the Schengen area, which simplifies passport issues. However, neither is within the customs union and what this means is that, in both cases, there are indeed customs posts and controls in place for goods traffic between each of those countries and the EU (in passing, another Brexiter canard, that there are no controls between the USA and Canada, is also untrue).

It is important to understand that this is inherent to what a customs union means and, therefore, to what leaving the EU customs union means. It is not a matter of (malevolent) choice on the part of the EU to initiate a border if the UK leaves – apart from anything else, it is a requirement of those WTO rules which in other contexts Brexiters are so keen on. Ironically, given that the UK making its own trade deals is so totemic for Brexiters they will find that it is impossible to make any such deals without being able to give the counterparty assurances about customs control, without which free trade agreements are, by definition, impossible. Moreover, customs control is about far more, and far more complex things, than the collection of duties. It is also about point of origin checks, standards conformity, quotas and a host of other, highly technical, matters. For detailed explanation, it’s worth looking at this excellent Institute for Government report (or, for the bare bones, just table 1 on page 9).

Much has been made of potential technological solutions to a hard border. Some of these are simply in the realms of fantasy, based on technologies that do not yet exist. And where they do exist they will require the UK quickly and successfully to deliver large and complex IT projects - which given experience in other areas looks optimistic – as well as equivalent systems being created on the EU side of the border, which is unlikely. Hence the Brexit Select Committee this week concluded that the possibility of a frictionless border is very low, although this did not stop one of the committee’s members, ultra Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg, using the almost daily platform the BBC gives him to claim that technology would provide the answer and that (of course) the EU was to blame anyway.

With all that said, it is true that new technologies as well as intelligence-led enforcement make it possible for custom controls to be quicker and easier than was the case in the past. But the extent to which the systems at other EU borders provide solutions for the Irish border is limited for two reasons. First, because the Irish border has an extremely dense and interconnected economy. There is six times as much goods traffic across it as across the Norway-Sweden border and, moreover, it is of a different type. Almost all Norway-Swedish traffic is one-time (i.e. goods going once across the border), but the Irish border cuts across supply chains so that many goods cross and re-cross the border several times. Secondly, because even to the extent that technology can make for quick and easy controls, on the Irish border any controls at all entail an enormous political sensitivity and are bound up with the detailed legal and political issues arising from the Good Friday Agreement.

All of my discussion here, in common with that of the current debate, is about goods traffic but there is also the issue of the movement of people. I have seen many reports suggesting that this is not an issue but I am not convinced that this is so. In particular, it is often said that the Common Travel Area (CTA)** which long precedes the EU makes passport controls on the Northern Ireland border irrelevant. But precisely because the CTA precedes the EU and in particular the single market, it does not really address the issue. Ireland is not in Schengen but it is in the single market, which means that people from anywhere in the EU can freely move to it.

So in the absence of passport controls at the Northern Ireland border they can therefore then move unimpeded into the UK. Of course if they do so they will be here illegally, but wasn’t one of the siren calls of Brexit the control of immigration in all its forms? This issue cannot be resolved by checks at the EU-26 border with Ireland, since any EU-26 citizen at that border will legally pass. I suspect that Brexit voters will react badly if they find that a passport-free border to Northern Ireland creates an easy route for illegal immigration.

What we are seeing in the Brexiter response to the Irish border issue is the familiar combination of denial and irony that characterises Brexiter thinking in general. On the one hand, there is a denial of the consequences of what they advocate. That goes right back to the referendum campaign when Boris Johnson and Theresa Villiers (then the Northern Ireland Secretary) told voters that Brexit would have no effect on the Northern Ireland border. On the other hand there is the irony that having campaigned so vociferously on the platform of ‘regaining control of our borders’ they rail against – indeed treat as a monstrous imposition by the EU – the fact that leaving the EU means border controls. 

*There are a lot of complexities here which would take far more than a blogpost to summarise. The debate about Brexit has tended to talk about ‘the single market’ and ‘the customs union’ as if these were two entities, homogenous in themselves and clearly differentiated from each other. They are not: each is complex and heterogenous, each interacts with the other, each has developed over time with multiple anomalies and weird legal byways. Neither is analogous to the ‘golf club’ metaphor that is often used. A better analogy might be with organic structures. In those terms, it has been remarked (I am not sure of the source) that Brexit is like an operation without anaesthetic to separate conjoined twins and hoping that the weaker one will live. The Irish border is analogous to the point where the twins’ heads meet.
**Note that the CTA has nothing whatsoever to do with customs controls on goods: these existed on the Northern Ireland border until after the creation of the single market.

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