Richard North, 18/05/2017  
 


In a classic example of the power of prestige, the BBC is quoting the head of Ireland's customs authority, who is stating that [only] up to eight percent of freight crossing the border will have to be subject to checks after Brexit.

This is Revenue Commissioner Liam Irwin who has been giving evidence to the Irish parliament's finance committee, whence he said that the authorities would try to minimise customs controls but they are required under EU law. On that basis, he argues that this would mean checks on 6-8 percent of freight, mainly on documents but with a "small number" of physical inspections.

Furthermore, Irwin says, checks would not happen at the border but at "trade facilitation posts" which would be "10 or 15 kilometres back from the border". He adds that there would also be some form of random, or risk-based, customs checks carried out by mobile units.

In the Commissioner's view, customs declarations would be made electronically and most transactions would be immediately approved. There would not be a return to a pre-1992 situation when there were customs posts at the border.

Bizarrely, the man then goes on to admit that Irish customs authorities are not currently in "any form of discussion" with the UK, which rather negates his earlier comments. At best, these could only be considered aspirational, dependent on the nature of the agreements on customs cooperation between the UK and the EU.

Not least, when it comes to customs declarations, the ability process these depend intrinsically on the degree of cross-border exchange of data which, in turn, will depend on UK conformity with EU data protection rules. This is currently open to question.

Then, Mr Irwin seems to be neglecting entirely the problem of conformity assessment, to which extent he must be presuming that the UK and the EU will be able to conclude a mutual recognition agreement (MRA). Without such an agreement, one would expect physical inspections (and specialist testing) of goods coming into Ireland from the North vastly to exceed a mere eight percent.

And this, of course, does not take into account the cross-border movement of livestock, agricultural goods and foodstuffs, which must be subject to veterinary or phytosanitary checks before they can even be submitted for customs clearance. For live animals, inspection rates can be 100 percent, while the rate might vary from 10-50 percent for the physical inspection of foodstuffs.

There is a way round this – what amounts to the "Swiss option". But this would require the UK to comply fully with EU animal health and food law, and all other relevant law, as well as carrying out full EU-style checks on imports from third countries.

For these sectors, the net effect would be the same as if the UK had never left the EU, with the proviso that the "fax law" jibe would come true. The UK would have to comply with EU law, with no direct input in its making – notwithstanding that many of the standards underwriting the law originate at global level.

What precisely businesses will have to plan for, therefore, depends on the level of agreement between the UK and the EU – nothing of which can be taken for granted. When it came to Irwin's presentation, it was perhaps just as well that Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty questioned whether talk of an invisible border was "fantasy land stuff" as nowhere in Europe had such arrangements.

Despite that, Michel Barnier was in the European Parliament yesterday for a debate on Brexit, when he urged businesses to "move fast" to prepare for Brexit in under two years. They should not count, he says, on long transition periods to cushion the impact of Britain leaving the European Union.

"We might be working on transitional measures post-Brexit, on a phasing-out period and a phasing-in towards the new relationship, but the real transition period is now, before exit", he said. "I would like to recommend all economic players, all economic operators, to make use of this period, so that the day of this exit, probably March 2019, is as orderly as possible".

However, notwithstanding my earlier piece, this report would have it that very few have made firm decisions, and cannot until they see what kind of new trading relationship can be agreed. Putting clothes on that assertion, we see a report which tells us that 98 percent of Irish companies have no plan in place to deal with the consequences of Brexit.

This sort of finding is very much in accord with my experience working for trade bodies. Invariably, when new regulations were introduced, business owners would leave it until the last possible minute before taking steps to comply.

There is every reason to believe that we will see the something of the same dynamic with Brexit. Most will delay taking action but those who do act – such as BNP Paribas, the latest bank to announce that it is moving staff out of London - will assume the worst.

Such companies cannot be faulted. There is a good business case for assuming the worst, especially when confronted with the sort of institutional ignorance and unwarranted optimism exhibited by the likes of Irwin. His claims seem to be much of the same order as assurances on Singapore's safety after the Japanese invasion of the Malay Peninsula.

The unwarranted optimism looks even thinner when one sees this survey conducted by Deloitte, which suggests that very nearly half of German enterprises support the idea of completely excluding the UK from the EU Single Market if it does not adhere to the four freedoms.

Nor is this by any means the first time we have seen such sentiment, which reinforces the premise that Germany is not going to roll over and demand an easy ride for the UK just so that we will continue buying BMWs.

If this needed any more emphasis, we need go no further than Angela Merkel who was addressing a G20 trade union event in Berlin yesterday. She took the opportunity to remind us that everything from just-in-time auto supply chains to the free movement of workers and even their pet cats and dogs will be thrown into question by Brexit.

While Britain would be free to change rules to its own advantage after leaving, she said, the EU would have to take steps to preserve a level playing field. "If the British government ends the free movement of people, that will have its price", she said.

"That's not malice", she added. "(One) cannot expect to have all the good sides and then say there will be an upper limit of 100,000 or 200,000 EU citizens, no more, or just researchers, but please nobody else. This will not work".

The fact that so many areas of policy have for decades operated under EU rules meant that the disruption following Brexit could extend into wholly unexpected parts, she warned. "Currently, the 250,000 pets, cats and dogs that travel from Britain to the continent or the other way around each year are managed within an EU framework," she said. "Now they'll need veterinary certificates - things we don't even remember".

So, in Berlin if not Dublin - the penny is finally dropping: border controls mean more than just customs checks. Belatedly, the Financial Times is waking up to the impact Brexit will have on food safety, albeit addressing only a fraction of the issues we rehearsed in January. Give the paper another year and it might start to catch up, whence the rest of the legacy media can copy its errors.

It was, after all, the Financial Times which invented the €100 billion "divorce bill", only now to have Barnier confront Nigel Farage in the European Parliament after the former Ukip leader claimed that Brussels was trying to "bully" Britain by seeking this amount.

Dismissing the allegation that it was a "ludicrous ransom", Barnier pointed the simple truth that has evaded Farage and most of the legacy media: "There is no figure for a financial settlement between Britain and the European Union yet", he declared.

Said Barnier, such a figure "can only be established once both sides agree on a common methodology of calculations, taking into account the date of exit". The amount will depend on the methodology we adopt and the actual date of the UK's exit. It is not (me) who will set a figure", he added.

Returning to the vexed question of trade, it isn't only the Germans who are going to be playing hardball – not that this was ever the case. The Irish Times is gloomily recording that a prominent French farm leader has lobbed a proverbial grenade into the upcoming Brexit negotiations by calling for the re-establishment of a hard Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This is Christophe Hillairet, a council member of Copa, Europe's largest farm organisation. He expressed fears that the UK would sign agreements to import food from Commonwealth countries after Brexit.

Raising the prospect of the internal border becoming a back door into the single Market, Hillairet warned that the only way to stop these imports finding their way into the Republic and the wider EU was for strict border controls to be reintroduced.

"Ireland is a big problem but for the French farmer we will need to have a hard Border between the North and the Republic as otherwise we will have a lot of products that will cross from North to South. That would be very dangerous for our producers", he told the Agra Europe website.

That once again strikes at Irwin's "fantasy land stuff", not made any better by a timid and dismally unimaginative report from the Institute of Government. While it recognises that free trade areas are "just one tool for boosting trade" and "other options may be much more effective in achieving trade policy objectives", it fails to offer any serious detail on those "other options".

Cutting through the bullshit bonanza, though, is the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which has the Scientific Advisory Council of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs writing to economy minister Brigitte Zypries warning that the Brexit process risks "unnecessary damage to economic relations".

The Council concedes that the mutual economic contacts are so important that it is necessary to conclude a "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement" but considers that the conclusion of such a treaty "will hardly be possible" by the planned exit date in 2019.

The Council's economists, therefore, advise Zypries to push for an intermediate step towards a free trade agreement, seeking to ensure that London joins Efta in parallel with Brexit. This, they say, would minimise disruption.

Interestingly, this follows an unrelated intervention by Liechtenstein's foreign minister Aurelia Frick, who is telling us that Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway could be part of the EU's deal with the UK after it leaves the EU.

"Solutions to soften the landing should be available to us", she said ahead of a meeting with Michel Barnier, who then promised that he would keep Efta/EEA States not only informed but consulted about the Brexit negotiations.

The UK has not yet triggered a clause in the EEA treaty, notifying the EU that it intends to leave the EEA. If it neglects this formal obligation, the clause will likely be triggered by the EU, said Dag Werno Hotler, deputy secretary general of Efta (notwithstanding that there is no expulsion clause).

Frick and her colleague, Norway's EU minister Frank Bakke Jensen, said they were "open-minded" about the UK re-joining Efta. "But the initiative would have to come from the UK. For the moment, the question is not on the table", the ministers said.

Once again, therefore, there is rustling in the undergrowth. Cut through the media bullshit and the colossal ignorance afflicting the establishment and there is sense to be had.






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