Nightmarish administrative task lies at heart of Brexit plan
Tory Brexiteers won’t be happy with the notion of policing migrants after they enter the UK
A member of Border Communities Against Brexit at a mock customs post set up at a press event last February at Carrickcarnon between Dundalk and Newry. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The Brexit negotiating paper on Northern Ireland published on Wednesday by the UK contains few surprises. It reiterates well-rehearsed positions on British aspirations for a seamless, frictionless border with some elaboration of how the UK sees that coming about, based on its new tailor-made customs union options.
While the principle of avoiding any physical border infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is positive, it is very difficult to see how this could operate in practice.
In suggesting as they did on Tuesday that a new “customs partnership”, which would essentially see the UK continuing to control the trade flows across the union’s external borders in accordance with EU rules, while applying different rules to goods destined only to the UK market, the UK has - in theory - come up with an option that would obviate the need for an internal border in Ireland.
But the plan is unprecedented internationally, highly complex, requiring nightmarish administrative provisions for both business and government, and most unlikely to fill Ireland’s EU partners with confidence that their external borders would be secure. And the faith expressed by Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davies in a technological alternative to border controls is most definitely not shared in Dublin.
Customs experts say that such measures can easily police over 90 per cent of trade, but would be completely unable to cope with the crucial illegal trade that is already a feature of the Border. In suggesting that the first-phase withdrawal talks currently under way could begin to reach political agreement on the need for an infrastructure-free Border, the UK also appears to be trying to bounce negotiators into discussions on trade which the EU insists can only begin once sufficient progress on withdrawal is made.
UK negotiators will probably be told they are putting the cart before the horse. Agricultural trade poses particular problems. The EU insists that all animal and food products crossing from third countries must meet its extensive phytosanitary and sanitary standards. Border checks are the means for monitoring such standards.
The UK paper suggests that it will be willing to meet such standards on an “ongoing” basis, but such a commitment would seriously inhibit it from doing agricultural trade agreements with countries like the US where, for example, GM crops are permitted. That commitment would appear to fly in the face of its trade stance.
In addition, the paper is extremely vague about how the UK in the context of the Common Travel Area intends to police potential immigration, either of EU or third country workers, coming in through the “backdoor” of the Republic. British offiicials suggest that policing illegal migration is not really a border control issue, but can be better done in controlling access to jobs once migrants have entered.
However, such an argument will go down extremely poorly with the Brexit fanatics on the Tory backbenches for whom border controls were and remain a central imperative of Brexit.