Why Border checks may be inevitable in a no-deal Brexit
UK’s proposals for a crash-out are not sustainable while Ireland will also face pressure
A change in road markings marking the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, outside the town of Middletown. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
If there is a no-deal Brexit, the UK immediately leaves the EU trading bloc. This means controls would be needed on goods entering the EU single market from the UK. The debate about the Irish Border after a no-deal Brexit thus comes down to two questions – what controls are needed, and where will they be carried out?
Controls at borders for products entering the EU are needed to ensure the proper duties are paid, to check the origin of the goods and to ensure the safety of the goods and that they meet EU regulations. Goods cannot circulate within the EU unless they clear customs, while controls are also vital to combat smuggling and to safeguard public and animal health in the EU.
The insurance policy on the Irish Border in the current withdrawal agreement – the much-discussed backstop – is a way to ensure checks are not needed at the Border. It would ensure that the North and the Republic remain in the same regulatory and customs regimes. But the withdrawal agreement itself has not yet been passed by the House of Commons – and may not be.
In the case of a no-deal Brexit, the State will argue that the UK should still meet its commitment to avoid Border checks via a backstop-type arrangement. And in the immediate wake of a no-deal, the UK has said that it will allow goods to enter the North from the Republic tariff-free and avoid the need for any Border checks. However, this does not look like a sustainable long-term position.It would put huge pressure on businesses in the North and wold also appear to be in contravention of World Trade Organisation rules .
For the EU – and for Ireland – there are some issues which would quickly emerge in such a scenario. Most firms moving goods across the Irish Border would lodge their movements electronically and many would move freely across the Border. But spot-checks are needed somewhere to ensure duties are paid and to check the origin of products.
Meanwhile, the emergence of two different customs territories would mean there would be a lot more opportunity for smugglers, again requiring checks and enforcement. Some checks might be possible away from the Border – though any infrastructure might provide a target for dissidents – or at company premises. But avoiding checks at or near the Border completely looks unlikely.
The problem is even greater for animal and food safety checks. Animals and related food products coming into the EU from third countries must undergo mandatory border checks at the first point of entry to the union at an approved post where documentary and physical checks must be made.
The only way to avoid such checks at the Irish Border would be for the North to keep to EU rules and regulations in this area and for more extensive checks to take place at Larne than currently do as animals and food products enter from Britain. Crucially, the EU would need to trust this checking process. When you consider the huge damage that can happen if a diseased animal enters your territory and the possibility of the UK bringing in food from third countries which does not meet EU rules, this all gets to look very complicated.
The bottom line is that, barring an arrangement similar to the backstop coming into place, some controls at or near the Irish Border look inevitable after a no-deal Brexit. Otherwise the EU might insist on checking goods entering from Ireland through continental ports, making us second-class members of the EU single market, with a potentially huge economic cost.