The Brexit talks have reached an impasse. The Irish government, backed by Brussels, is threatening to veto any further progress towards an implementation period or trade talks until they have what they see as a “satisfactory solution” to the Irish border issue.
Both the EU proposal that Northern Ireland remain within the EU customs union, and the UK proposal of a customs partnership, have been rejected by the other side.
Policy Exchange’s publication Getting over the line: solutions to the Irish border outlines how the UK got itself into this difficult position. A key factor is the wording of last December’s Joint Progress Report, when the UK conceded too much on the Northern Ireland issue in its anxiety to move onto trade talks.
The lesson of that mistake is that all concessions will be punished, as UK flexibility comes up against EU intransigence.
An Irish border without physical infrastructure is fully attainable, and the overly complex customs partnership is unnecessary. Arrangements based on the UK’s proposals for an expanded trusted trader scheme and exemptions for small traders will suffice to operate a border without infrastructure.
The additional idea of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the whole island for animal health may have additional merit, as long as it carries no constitutional implications that unionists would reject. All of this would be greatly facilitated with the Free Trade Agreement that the UK wishes to negotiate and which the EU is delaying and frustrating.
The key point is that modern technology means that physical customs posts, or even cameras, are no longer essential at borders. This is the case made by the EU’s own customs expert, Lars Karlsson, who envisages the use of mobile phone and GPS technology to track HGVs, together with the computer-based customs clearing which is the norm across much of the world.
Supporters of UK membership of the EU customs union assert that no border exists anywhere in the world without some physical infrastructure. This is true but irrelevant. Mr Karlsson says that arrangements without physical infrastructure have been successfully trialled on the Norway-Sweden border.
The only reason that they have not been adopted for general use on this border is that the existing border arrangements are satisfactory, and hence the cost of new electronic systems is not justified.
Our conclusion in the report is that the UK can deliver the promise of no hard border in Ireland. This can be done without remaining in the EU customs union or inventing new and complex schemes involving the tracking of individual consignments to their final destination.
Since very few consignments are actually checked at existing EU borders, and those checks are usually based on intelligence received, such checks can easily be made away from borders.
Nor do we believe that the Good Friday Agreement is particularly affected by Brexit – a view confirmed by Lord Trimble, a key architect in the creation of the agreement. The reason for avoiding a hard border is to avoid endangering officials charged with erecting, maintaining or operating border infrastructure.
The danger of dissident paramilitaries attacking infrastructure or the associated officials has been heightened by the over-reaction of opponents of Brexit, but precautions are now necessary.
The Irish Government is playing a dangerous game by demanding that Northern Ireland remains within the EU customs union and by threatening vetoes. Ireland more than any EU economy needs free trade with the UK but has made no efforts to promote such an agreement in Brussels.
Indeed, its main effort has been to frustrate moves in this direction, because the Irish border is being used as a weapon by Brussels to influence the Brexit negotiations to its advantage.
The priority now should be for the British and Irish sides to return to the co-operative approach last seen under Leo Varadkar’s predecessor, Enda Kenny. Mutually acceptable border arrangements can be devised in the context of the free-trade agreement that Ireland badly needs.
The Irish border issue has disproportionately dominated discussion over the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. It has been used as a tool for negotiating advantage by Brussels and political advantage by Dublin.
In London, arch-Remainers have used it to scaremonger about the threat to the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland. These concerns are not supported by evidence.
A solution that respects the Brexit referendum and maintains a light-touch border is achievable. A recognition of the economic and political reality, and a little good faith, can help achieve a solution that promotes prosperity for all sides – and preserves peace.
By Graham Gudgin, Policy Exchange’s Chief Economic Adviser.