Staying in EU still best solution by far for Irish border

by Luke Lythgoe | 16.08.2017

Having published some fairly fantastical proposals for the UK’s post-Brexit customs arrangements yesterday, the government has followed up with a sequel focused specifically on the Irish border. This latest position paper does better at offering possible solutions rather than trotting out a vague wish list, but the proposals remain a far cry from the ease of travel and trade that EU membership provides.

The UK, like the EU, wants to maintain today’s “invisible and seamless” border. That means no “physical border infrastructure” for any purpose, including customs checks. The universal desire to uphold the Northern Ireland peace process, not to mention the government’s reliance on DUP loyalists in Parliament, puts added pressure on all sides to find an answer.

A series of “imaginative and flexible” solutions could prevent the need for physical border posts, which, as the paper notes, were frequently the target of bombing attacks during the ‘Troubles’. All border infrastructure was removed as part of the Good Friday Agreement, and preserving this dividend from the peace process seems, commendably, to be the government’s primary goal.

But if the UK wishes to pursue its own customs regime, setting its own tariffs with non-EU countries, then those checks will still need to happen somewhere. That means a greater burden on Northern Ireland’s traders than they experience inside the EU now.

The government is keen to explore cross-border trade exemptions for small and medium-sized businesses, allowing them to trade freely within the island of Ireland. Larger enterprises could apply for EU-UK-wide recognition as “Authorised Economic Operators”. This would streamline the clearance of goods at the border, but still means more paperwork for businesses than they have now.

What’s more, the idea only addresses those trading honestly. With up to 300 crossing points on the Irish border, the Brexit deal is set to be a “smugglers’ charter”, according to Irish senator Mark Daly. Brexit secretary David Davis himself has previously admitted to a Lords select committee that we “may have to put up with a loss of revenue somewhere” as smugglers illegally bring goods into the EU originally imported from non-EU countries by the UK under cheaper tariffs.

A specific area of trade where leaving the EU seems particularly pointless is the agri-food industry, in which products typically cross the border several times during manufacture. Here the government is proposing “regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures” between the UK and EU. In reality this means the UK will largely follow Brussels’ lead, since the EU is the bigger player and, as a current member of the single market, the UK is already adhering to EU standards anyway. This necessity to follow EU standards to prevent border checks could potentially spill into other industries in future  – a blow for Brexiters hoping to unshackle themselves from European regulations.

But the most futile aspect of these new Irish border plans is the consequences for the UK’s fight against terrorism. A recurrent argument made by Brexiters during the referendum campaign was that Islamist terrorists who may have slipped into the EU’s borderless Schengen area during the migrant crisis could lie low, gain EU citizenship after a few years and then travel unhindered to the UK and commit atrocities on British streets. The UK, Brexiters cried, must take back control of its borders.

On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (listen from 2:10:00), Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire was asked what in future would stop a European terrorist travelling freely to Dublin and then crossing the open Irish border into the UK. His response mentioned “partnership arrangements” with the Irish and other governments, “passenger name records and other systems”, and “toughening up” standards. All of this could be done, and done better, if the UK remained in the EU.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley