Cliff Taylor: Post-Brexit frictionless Border is a fantasy
North remaining in EU customs union is only way to solve riddle of having no hard Border
A mock customs post set up by anti-Brexit campaigners at Ravensdale, Co Louth, to highlight concerns about the impact on trade. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
It really is time to nail the fallacy of the frictionless Border. Senior figures in the British government – and in the DUP – have been trying to face both directions at once, arguing that Britain should leave the customs unions as part of Brexit, but that they also wanted what Theresa May has called a “seamless, frictionless,” Border.
But the current version of Brexit being put forward from London – insofar as there is clarity on what they want – would, if implemented, mean that the Border, in some form, is pretty much certainly on the way back. And borders are never truly frictionless, even if there are things you can do to limit the damage.
There seems to be only one way to solve the riddle of of having no Border on the island, if Britain does leave the customs union, which is the European Union agreement allowing free movement of goods. It would be for some kind of special exemption or status to be given to the North, effectively allowing it to remain in the customs union. But this would then lead to another problem, the need for Border controls, bureaucracy and possibly tariffs at ports and airports in the North, as goods came and went from Britain.
This might well be the lesser of two evils for the Government, as if Britain leaves the customs union we will have controls at our ports anyway on goods coming and going from the UK. However, business in the North would face new delays and costs on their trade with Britain, by far their most important market. The DUP would also see this idea of a special status as politically and economically unacceptable. And so, like so much about Brexit, you end up in a cul de sac . You can try to limit the damage, but you can’t solve the problem.
The Government at least has a consistent position, arguing for the North to have a special status, ideally allowing it to remain in the customs union. This would meet Irish political and economic objectives and avoid the reintroduction of an “economic border”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar conceded this week that this was complicated and difficult. And the reason is that this is not just an issue between Britain and Ireland – but affects the rest of the EU as well. Britain and Ireland should be able to agree on the continuation of the Common Travel Area allowing rights for Irish people to work and live in the UK and vice versa.The rest of the EU will be largely unaffected by this. The same is not the case in relation to trade and the movement of goods – this affects everybody – and this is why it is so tricky.
The customs union is the part of the EU which allows goods to move freely across borders. As part of this, all its members apply the same rules rules and impose the same import duties – or tariffs – on goods coming in from outside the union as well. This means that not only can goods produced by EU members circulate freely, but also that once goods made elsewhere enter the EU and clear the necessary procedures once, they can then move around freely from country to country.
Now think for a minute of life after Brexit. The UK has said it wants to strike new trade deals with non-EU members. So, say, it starts to import a load of beef from South America. European farmers will not want this seeping into their market via the Border. And this is just one isolated example and before you get into the complex regulatory and safety issues.
Of course steps could be taken to make controls at the Border less intrusive on the 177,000 lorries and more than 200,000 vans which cross each month. A lot of work is going into this in Dublin, Brussels and London. Companies who regularly move goods across the Border could register, paying necessary duties online and thus avoiding regular checks. Checks would still be needed at or near the Border, though, on other goods movements and businesses will face a lot of bureaucracy and delay.
And there are a thousand other headwrecks to consider. What about the complex rules on food safety? A lot of milk from cows in the North goes for processing in the Republic, for example, and some goes in the opposite direction. More than 5,000 sheep from the North are slaughtered in factories in the Republic each week. There may be ways to make the necessary checks less intrusive, but they will still have to happen somewhere.
For the Government, negotiating this is going to be tricky. And it will be impossible to tie up an agreement on the Border before it is clear what Britain and the EU will agree on future trade.
The soft Brexit brigade in London, led by chancellor Philip Hammond, are making a play for Britain to stay in the customs union. It could also leave the existing union and negotiate a new customs union deal with the EU, along the lines of an existing deal between the EU and Turkey. These different outcomes all mean different things for the future of the Border.
Both London and the other EU states have promised to help us here, and no doubt they will try. But they will do this in the context of looking after their own interests first. For the big EU states, the bottom line is not making this easy for Britain. And this means flexibility on the Border issue will go only so far. We may yet face a big battle on this one.