Even at the height of the Troubles with 27,000 armed security personnel, a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a practical impossibility. It is now completely undesirable, which is why no one is arguing in its favour.
Despite this, headlines predicting checkpoints and unmanageable delays have been allowed to set the tone of the debate. But it must be remembered that a border already exists – in currency, VAT, excise duties and security. In all our conversations with business people and politicians on both sides of the border, not one has said that the current arrangements present problems. This is because they are handled through a combination of technology and cooperation between the authorities, north and south.
One of the reasons for this is that trade across the border is characterised by regular crossings of goods, often on the same routes in the same trucks. The agri-food sector is particularly important, with just under half of the cross-border manufacturing trade accounted for by food, beverages and tobacco. Around a third of Northern Ireland’s milk heads south of the border for processing. Some 13,000 crossings are made annually purely for the production of Guinness.
As a result, much cross-border trade is well suited to Authorised Economic Operator schemes. Paperwork can be submitted electronically ahead of travel, with number-plate recognition systems allowing trucks to cross the border without so much as changing gear. GPS technology may obviate the need for physical infrastructure at the border, including cameras. Local traders can be given exemptions, with lighter requirements and the obligation to pay any duties only once or twice a year to minimise disruption.
Such schemes need expanding – the UK has only around 600 AEOs compared with over 6,000 in Germany – but the crucial point is that technological solutions can be made to work, if only they are not delayed by political squabbles.
The European Commission used to believe this itself. In the Smart Border 2.0 paper which it commissioned, former director of the World Customs Organisation Lars Karlsson saw the discussions on the Irish border as “an opportunity to develop a friction free border building on international standards and best practices”. He discussed the ability of technologies to “reduce or even eliminate the need to stop or undergo checks”. Crucially, Karlsson also demonstrated that his solution could be implemented “regardless of the legal framework for the UK’s exit from the EU” including on WTO terms.
Sadly, such pragmatism has been lost in recent months. The Commission showed its dangerous ignorance of Northern Ireland with its proposal that “the territory of Northern Ireland…shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union”. This would be a clear breach of the Principle of Consent enshrined in the Belfast Agreement, designed to respect the border and leave the choice about its future solely, democratically and peacefully in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland.
It would serve neither the interests of the Republic of Ireland nor Northern Ireland. Eighty-five per cent of Northern Ireland’s sales are within the UK – with 65 per cent remaining in the province and 20 per cent with Great Britain. Only 5 per cent of sales are with the Republic. Just 1.6 per cent of Irish exports go to Northern Ireland, and 1.6 per cent of the Republic’s imports are from Northern Ireland. It would be absurd for Northern Ireland to be cut off from the UK Single Market for the sake of that, just as it would be for the Republic to jeopardise the 13.4 per cent of exports and almost a quarter of imports sent to and received from the UK.
The Commission has made a major error in only taking advice on Irish matters from Dublin. It must seek to learn from voices in Northern Ireland. It must return to the approach which Karlsson set out. It must listen to senior figures, including the architect of the Belfast Agreement, David Trimble. A sensible technological solution is in the best interests of the whole British Isles.
To read Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers’ article in full, click here.