Newton Emerson: Curious tale of the Brexit dog that didn’t bark

Leo Varadkar playing dangerous game by saying Ireland has no Plan B for Border

In February this year Michael Lux, former head of customs procedures for the European Commission, testified to Westminster's Northern Ireland affairs committee.

There were reportedly “gasps” from MPs when Lux said documents will be required post-Brexit to bring dogs over the Irish Border, even for a casual walk. For days afterwards, the newspapers and airwaves were filled with gleeful horror at such an absurd prospect – until it emerged the EU already requires veterinary certified pet passports and vaccination records for this purpose, but everyone simply ignores it. The story has not been mentioned since.

There was an echo of it this week, however, in reports of a leaked Brexit paper from Ireland's Revenue Commissioners. The BBC and RTÉ zeroed in on a threat to the National Ploughing Championships, which will need a temporary importation procedure for agricultural equipment.

While this is true, an event like the ploughing championship would unquestionably be covered by the EU’s general procedure for oral declarations – the Sharia divorce of customs exemptions, where saying “nothing to declare” not even three times but once is enough to make it official.


Alternatively, a special procedure could be established for the event, perhaps consisting of a windscreen sticker – that is how the EU permits other non-car vehicles to temporarily cross its frontier.

It was strange that nobody cited horses, given their prominence in the ploughing championships. Britain, Ireland and France have a trilateral agreement for free movement of horses but the EU still insists on an equine passport between all three countries.

No doubt this requirement is religiously observed. One of its consequences is that it is easier to ship horses out of the EU than around it, providing a permanent solution for the ploughing championships. After Brexit, the contest should be moved to Northern Ireland. Protestants have all the best land anyway.

The British no-deal plan is well understood to be about pressurising the EU for a deal

The tale of the Border dog is an anti-Brexit version of Yes Minister's "Eurosausage" – an EU scare story made up or exaggerated to cause popular outrage.

There is no reason to believe the Revenue Commissioners raised the ploughing championships for this purpose. A technocratic fascination with the details of their own field is the likeliest explanation.

Electronic Border

The leaked report is a year old and has not been published in full but other reports and testimony since the UK’s Brexit vote show the Revenue Commissioners always taking a practical, big picture approach.

Their initial comments last year emphasised an electronic Border was possible. Figures for minimal physical inspections were given to the Oireachtas in May. When asked to consider a worst-case hard Brexit scenario, the leaked report reveals the same pragmatic mindset – an invisible Border would not be possible but managing the consequences would be, through a large up-front expense and a continuing administrative overhead.

The leaked paper is strikingly similar to the UK's worst-case "no deal" Brexit plan unveiled this week by British prime minister Theresa May. Both proposals feature an almost fatalistic acceptance of extra bureaucracy, plus the need for a lot more places to park a lorry.

The British no-deal plan is well understood to be about pressurising the EU for a deal, by giving the UK a credible option to walk away from article 50 talks.

The question is whether Dublin is playing a similar game.

The Irish Government says it will not release the leaked report because it is misleadingly out of date but this feels of a piece with the decision by the Taoiseach, reported in August, to stop the Revenue Commissioners investigating technological Border solutions, on the grounds that it is not Ireland's job to fix Britain's mess.

Brexit was famously described by the The Economist as 'an act of self-harm'

There is quite a difference between saying “take us seriously because we have a Plan B” and “take us seriously because we don’t have a Plan B”.

Particularly daring

The latter position is particularly daring from Ireland, which stands to lose so much from Brexit, yet which has demonstrated so much ability at preparedness. In fact, the Revenue Commissioners seem better prepared than the UK overall.

If Ireland had realistic goals from this high stakes move the gamble might be justified. But what it is seeking – a UK-EU customs arrangement that renders an Irish Border unnecessary – is so at variance with the trading freedom the UK wants that it must lie at the absolute limits of plausibility. Even if such a monumental compromise was forced on London, Ireland would have little to do with it. Westminster politics would be the critical factor.

Brexit was famously described by the The Economist as "an act of self-harm". A deliberate strategy of unpreparedness looks like an Irish equivalent. It is as if Leo Varadkar is trying to turn the whole of Brexit into his very own Border dog.

Either he is doing this because he believes the dog will never bite, or he thinks the strategy is plausible because it will.

Which would be the more irresponsible?