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Analysis

Technology will not allow UK to escape the ‘backstop’

by Rob Davidson | 23.11.2018

For some years now, there has been a dangerous drinking game at technology conferences – to take a swig any time some would-be “disruptor” invokes the technology “Blockchain”. Sadly, it seems the Brexiters have become drunk while looking for a solution to ‘the Irish backstop’ problem.

Technology would undoubtedly have a big role to play in our post-Brexit borders and customs arrangements. But there is categorically no technology that will remove the need for a border within Ireland if the UK attempts to leave the EU’s customs union and single market regulations – no matter what promises are made in Theresa May’s “political declaration” on our Brexit future.

By including “technology” as a possible solution for keeping the Irish border open, Theresa May is hoping to win some support for her deal from the Brextremist backbenchers of the ERG. It hasn’t worked. But more importantly, the government needs to accept that technology is never going to be enough for this particular situation.

Philip Hammond was first to specify Blockchain, BitCoin’s electronic ledger system, as a means to remove a hard border. During his Conservative Party conference speech in October he said: “There is technology becoming available… I don’t claim to be an expert on it but the most obvious technology is Blockchain.”

Blockchain is the future” some have declared. It has many potential uses where people need to trust transactions: exchanging contracts, identity management, cross-border payments. Some have suggested it could be used for immigration control. The US government has said it is intending to use blockchain in verification of imports.

In fact, earlier this year a UK company, Business West, used blockchain to certify the origin of an export good and specifically mentioned that the concept might prove useful for post-Brexit “rules of origin” certification. It does, therefore, seem likely that Blockchain will be used at our borders in future – although Business West said putting the customs system on Blockchain “could take a decade”. And the government isn’t known for successful development of big, complex IT systems.

Yet the biggest problem is not technological, it is criminal. Northern Ireland is already a point of smuggling for goods as varied as washing powder, garlic and diesel. If post-Brexit Britain diverged in regulations, or as currency exchange rates fluctuated, the opportunities for smugglers would increase. It has been estimated that smuggling between the EU and UK, via Northern Ireland could be worth up to £1bn annually.

These are unchecked goods that have no manifest. Even the most sophisticated Blockchain systems do absolutely nothing to track illegal smuggling activities where goods are not tagged, barcoded and scanned.

In Ireland, smuggling takes on an added dimension: is a boost to paramilitary finances and resources and ultimately a threat to the Good Friday Agreement. No international committee or tribunal will agree to the UK withdrawing from the regulation and tariff alignment of the backstop when the outcome is a boost to paramilitary finances and resources.

Brexiters need to face it – once entered, they can facilitate the backstop with technology but they cannot use technology to leave.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

4 Responses to “Technology will not allow UK to escape the ‘backstop’”

  • Our very non-technical masters are obviously having meetings with some of our better-known consultancies. They have such faith in technology to solve problems which are largely political and social! The best that can be said is that Block Chain will cause no harm. Whether this will be the invisible and impenetrable border, which seems to be required, is very dubious. One should always be suspicious when our politicians start spouting technical terms. They will have been wined and dined and probably sold a pup. Anyone remember a really successful government-led IT project…NHS for example? Of course what they are relying on is money being spent on technical solutions, which ,when they fail, will be too difficult to undo. Just like Brexit.

  • If this is such great technology that can be relied upon to safeguard all the necessary checks and controls, then why doesn’t the Government bring it in at Dover or Heathrow? And save on the cost of all those border officials.
    The EU negotiators should suggest that so as to test that the Government is making the proposals for NI in good faith. Somehow I think the Govrenment would speedily find an excuse why it wouldn’t be appropriate for either of the latter.
    Can just imagine the headlines in the Daily Express if border and immigration officials were phased out at Dover.

  • Of course they know it won’t work. If they thought it would, the ERG et al wouldn’t have any concerns about the backstop. It would never be needed. If they are afraid we might be trapped in it indefinitely without being able to escape, it is because they realise there is no alternative on the horizon that will keep the Irish border open.

  • The reality of a virtual invisible border meandering along 314 miles of often uncharted territory with some 120 plus informal crossing points wi;ll render ‘Blockchain’ inoperable and inappropriate. My personal experience of the actual terrain would suggest such a solution to be derisory and a potential fundraiser for terrorist activities.