An Irish border without infrastructure and ferry ports without queues are all possible using existing technology

An Irish border without infrastructure and ferry ports without queues are all possible using existing technology

Boris Johnson’s characteristically colourful dismissal of the PM’s preferred customs option as ‘crazy’ was perhaps over the top. This ‘Customs Partnership’ may also not be ‘completely cretinous’ as Jacob Rees-Mogg believes. It is however probably a non-starter for a range of reasons. The scheme involves mimicking the EU Customs Union as closely as possible. The UK would charge EU tariffs on goods entering from outside the EU and give rebates where appropriate for goods whose final destination is the UK. All consignments would, however, need to be electronically tracked to their destination. Such technology already exists, but the scope for fraud would be great once consignments were unpacked. The scheme has already been rejected by the EU who view it as overly complex. They also reject the idea of a ‘third country’ collecting EU tariffs.

The scheme seeks to solve two problems. One is the avoidance of physical infrastructure at the Irish border. The other is the avoidance of queues at RoRo ports, and especially at Dover where parking space is highly constrained. The idea is that, once inside the UK, imports could flow freely into the EU including the Republic of Ireland. To do so, such goods would presumably need to meet all EU regulations, although if destined for the EU most would already do so.

What is odd about the idea is that most goods crossing into the EU would originate in the UK rather than in other countries. These would need to pay EU tariffs and respect EU regulations. Border checks would be necessary to ensure that they do so. A free trade agreement between the UK and EU could lead to all or most tariffs being set to zero, but the issue of regulation would remain unless the EU granted ‘regulatory equivalence’ for all products.

The supposed advantage of the Customs Partnership over remaining in the full EU Customs Union is that it would allow the UK to sign its own free-trade agreements across the world. These would however be odd agreements. Foreign firms exporting into the UK would need to pay EU tariffs and then claim rebates and would need to observe EU regulations. The UK would be unable to sign any agreement that conflicted with EU regulations. An FTA with the USA, for instance, could not allow imports into the UK of a range of US foodstuffs barred by the EU.

If all of this complexity is merely to avoid border infrastructure in Ireland and RoRo ferry queues for just in time manufacturers, there are surely simpler ways to achieve the same end. These simpler approaches, preferred by Brexiteers, are usually called Maximum Facilitation or Max Fac for short. This approach relies on electronic customs clearing, which is standard across the EU following World Customs Organisation principles. Firms declare the contents of their consignment, declare import content and provide certification where necessary, for example for animal health and food or drug standards. Once cleared electronically, firms exporting to the EU then usually have a few hours to cross the border. Consignments can be checked at the border using bar-codes or number-plate recognition technology. In practice as few as 1% are stopped, usually as a result of intelligence.

All borders currently have some infrastructure including cameras, but the EU’s own customs expert Lars Karlsson, currently deputy director of Swedish Customs, told the Brexit Select Committee that this is unnecessary using up to date technology. In contrast to claims in the Remainer media, this technology is not new. It involves mobile phone and GPS technology which most motorists already carry in the cars. Mobile tracking has been available for years. Phones always know their location, and can provide messages when approaching a speed camera or border. This technology is already in use for the mass tracking of vehicles, for instance by Network Rail for trains or Uber for taxis. A customs centre monitoring customs clearance information could also track the movement of vehicles across the Irish border, especially since only 6000 HGVs a day are involved, half of them on one road. Most HGVs already carry such technology, but it could be made mandatory for HGVs in Ireland.

The UK Position Paper of last August included other suggestions to facilitate a soft border in Ireland. These include an extension of the Authorised Economic Operator (Trusted Trader) scheme for reputable companies like Guinness or Coca-Cola Bottlers, whose many lorries crossing the Irish border need never be stopped. The same would apply to just-in-time manufacturers at GB ferry ports. The UK Position Paper importantly also suggested customs exemptions for small traders and tradesmen criss-crossing the Irish border as part of their daily business. A free trade agreement with the EU, maintaining the current zero-tariff regime, would minimise any incentive for smuggling over and above that which already occurs to exploit differing excise duties in Ireland.

The Irish Government has hinted that it might reverse its earlier rejection of the Customs Partnership but remains otherwise wedded to a ‘backstop’ which would require regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU. Oddly, and probably under EU instruction, it never mentions alignment of tariffs. Regulatory checks should only be necessary if the UK diverged away from its existing full alignment, and in any case can be met by mutual ‘equivalence’ agreements of the sort the EU currently has with Canada and New Zealand. If there were particular anxieties about animal health or food safety, additional checks could be made on imports to Northern Ireland by plane or ferry. The DUP tend to be relaxed about such ideas, as long as they lack the potential to escalate into schemes of constitutional importance.

An Irish border without infrastructure, and ferry ports without queues, are all possible using existing technology and with few novel administrative arrangements. As Karlsson says, such borders could form a new standard for ease of movement throughout the EU. What is needed more than anything is the co-operative attitude which at present is so clearly missing.