Cliff Taylor: After Brexit – the danger of a ‘Boris Border’

UK trying to fudge definition of a hard border as it seeks a way out of a trap of its own making

Cars line up to cross into the US at the US-Canada border. The US-Canada border was rolled out again recently by Theresa May as one the ideas the UK was examining. Photograph: Getty Images

Cars line up to cross into the US at the US-Canada border. The US-Canada border was rolled out again recently by Theresa May as one the ideas the UK was examining. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Just what is a “hard” border? Everyone agrees there shouldn’t be one on the island of Ireland after Brexit. But what do they mean?

The Irish view is that no hard trade border means things staying pretty much as they are, with goods moving freely. The UK, on the other hand, keeps going back to the concept of a border where trade is controlled and monitored using “smart”technology. This is the London way of avoiding a hard border. The US-Canada border was rolled out again recently by Theresa May as one the UK was examining.

Boris Johnson, in a leaked letter to May, urged the UK government to acknowledge that some Irish border controls would be needed after Brexit. This week he said such checks would be “very, very minimal”. But a “ Boris border” would still be a border. It would require some kind of infrastructure, checks and patrols. You don’t need me to point out the political, security and economic problems this would threaten.

The UK government keeps coming back to this because it is the only way of pretending that all the red lines can continue to co-exist. But they can’t.

As John Springford of the UK Centre for European Reform wrote recently: “Theresa May must choose two of the following three options: an exit from the single market and customs union, no hard border with Ireland, and an all-UK approach to Brexit.” The song may suggest that two out of three ain’t bad. but for May abandoning any one of her red lines would be politically toxic.

Checks and controls

The definition of a hard border is vital to all this. The agreement reached between the EU and UK last December included the following: “The United Kingdom also recalls its commitment to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls.”

In the wake of Johnson’s comments, 10 Downing Street said on Friday that this was still its goal. But can such infrastructure and checks be avoided if the UK does leave the single market and customs union? The short answer is no.

Dr Katy Haward of Queen’s University in Belfast points out that even if advanced technology and pre-registering of goods movements were successfully introduced, checks and controls would still be needed.

Specifically, these would at least involve camera checks at the Border to match the number plates of trucks crossing with pre-registrations. Also, some depots either at, or close to, the Border would be needed where spot-check goods inspections would be made, and the necessary checks undertaken to enforce rules and regulations in areas like food safety and the origin of products.

Some Brexiteers in the UK and the DUP have referred to policies put forward in a report for the European Parliament, the much-quoted Smart Border 2.0 report, Its author is Lars Karlsson, former head of the World Customs Organisation, an intergovernmental body.

Anyone who reads beyond the summary will realise that what is involved here are solutions to reduce the amount of checks at the Border, not eliminate them. The report refers to “low-friction” borders like US-Canada and Norway-Sweden. Both involve checks on goods, delays and infrastructure. The solution it proposed for Ireland involves a truck approaching a Border gate and being automatically allowed through if everything is in order.

Complicated

The difficulty of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again if the UK does leave the EU trading bloc is why the so-called backstop – the arrangement which the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement said will kick in if no other solution is found – is so darn complicated.

For no trade border you need tariff-free trade and full alignment in rules and regulations, at least insofar as they apply to goods, including animals and food. You also need some way to check goods coming from third countries via the UK and into the EU.

The Conservatives and the DUP are up in arms about this backstop because free trade on the island implies the need for border controls between Britain and the North.

However, other solutions put forward by London fall short. A UK proposal that it could apply different rules to imports from third countries destined to move on to the EU market than it would to those staying in the UK does not look doable.

London has also proposed that smaller traders North and South could be exempted from Border checks, though again this raises a lot of questions.

If the talks progress the most likely outcome is a trade deal along the lines of that agreed between the EU and Canada, perhaps covering a bit more ground. If this eliminated tariffs it would solve one problem in relation to the Border. But you would then be back into the same old circular argument about the need to align single market rules and regulations North and South to avoid Border checks and how to control third country imports.

Tricky position

So, with the UK insisting it will leave the EU trading bloc and the EU insisting that the single market be protected, we could yet be in a tricky position. If, come the autumn, the outlines of a trade deal are on the table, could we come under pressure to relent to some checks – to agree to a kind of a “Boris border”? So far, it must be said, EU support for us has been solid.

And the issue could come to a head sooner, with European Council president Donald Tusk saying in Dublin this week that for as long as the UK doesn’t present a solution on the Border, “it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations”.

But there simply is no solution unless May gives up on one of her red lines. The frictionless border is a contradiction in terms.

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