Cliff Taylor: Brexit and the imaginary invisible Border
Businesses are unlikely to get any more clarity after next week’s crucial summit
The Border issue is showing no signs of going away. Photograph: PA Wire
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster has done its work and held its hearings and has come to the same conclusion as all the economic and trade experts. If the UK leaves the EU trading bloc, there is no “technical” solution which can avoid the return of a visible trade Border in Ireland, it says in a report published on Friday. It said: “We have found no evidence that, right now, an invisible border is possible.”
The committee spoke to customs experts and those involved in working on the Norway/Sweden frontier, as well as the borders between Switzerland and the EU. It has said it is concerned at the lack of progress on the issue of the Border after Brexit. Its hearings showed how definitions of a “hard border” differed, although the UK has committed to a Border with no physical infrastructure.
The question now in the run up to next week’s EU summit is whether the Border issue can be dealt with so that the EU leaders can sign off on the details of the withdrawal agreement and the transition phase after Brexit. Both are up for discussion at the summit. This progress is now seen as essential, particularly as businesses both in the UK and EU need some clarity that the transition period will begin after the UK leaves next March and that while it goes on trade will be able to continue more or less as it does now.
Unfortunately for businesses, even if this transition deal is agreed next week, it will not be tied down as a certainty until a final Brexit deal also involving a scoping out of the future relationship is reached. This is due to happen by October, but this could easily slip. If the talks remain in danger of failure, then businesses will have to plan for two completely different scenarios – a transition period, probably lasting until December 2020, and then a trade deal, on one hand, or a damaging “no deal” Brexit on the other.
The Westminster committee, like the EU and the Irish Government, called on the British government to show how a “hard” border could be avoided should the UK leave the EU customs union and single market. The trouble is that everybody knows that this is a logical impossibility, unless the UK promises to mirror the customs and regulatory regimes in the North with those in place in the Republic. The difficulty of doing this will be very significant technically, once the link with the EU trading bloc is broken. And then of course there are the political issues and the insistence by the DUP that there be no new barriers to trade between the North and Britain.
Will this all derail an agreement next week? Or will the UK any agree, as it did in December, to do enough to avoid border controls by – in the absence of other solutions – aligning the North with the full rules of the customs union and single market. Can it get away with this politically by saying it hopes that new trade arrangements with the EU will solve the problem, even if a free trade deal on its own will not do so? An interesting few days of negotiations lie ahead. Progress is reported in other areas, but the Border conundrum remains.
This comes against a backdrop of increasing signs of UK unpreparedness to deal with any of its borders after Brexit. A document leaked to Sky News on Friday said that in a “no deal” scenario, UK officials were proposing that they would have to take a “pragmatic” approach which would involve not checking all goods entering and leaving via it ports , and would expect the EU to do likewise. There simply wasn’t space at the UK ports to implement such controls, it said. So much for controlling the UK borders after Brexit.
However not introducing proper controls would be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules. The EU, very insistent on the integrity of the single market, would not reciprocate either. In other words, in a “ no deal” scenario, chaos is threatened.
This again highlights the pressure on the UK to agree a transition agreement and a future free trade deal. However to do so , some formula is needed to solve the issue of the Border. And with no such formula in sight,the way forward is far from clear.