Richard North, 20/05/2017  
 


Following the front-page euphoria in the Mail on Mrs May's election manifesto, it was rather amusing to see a Twitter comment to the effect that, if May announced slaughter of the firstborn right, the paper would describe it as a boon for overstretched parents.

Certainly, we've seen nothing unduly critical about the Brexit aspects from the media generally, much less the Mail in the wake of the manifesto publication. It took Chris Johns of the Irish Times, therefore, to note that the manifesto was "strong on economic illiteracy".

By and large, it is still the Irish who are making the running on Brexit news, with the Irish Times also in the frame, recording, amongst other things, the exploits of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

He was in London yesterday addressing people at the Ireland Funds of Great Britain's City lunch, telling them that his Government would seek to protect the interests of Northern Ireland, warning that a hard Border was "unacceptable".

"My Government", he said, "has sought to protect the interests of the island as a whole in its extensive preparatory work on Brexit and will continue to advocate very strongly for Northern Ireland’s interests to be protected". But, he added, "it is important to recognise that the UK leaving the EU changes the context and presents very real challenges to us on the island of Ireland".

Meanwhile, the "fantasy land" we noted in our earlier piece is still very much in evidence. Under the title: "New Border: 'Cars being stopped and searched isn't going to happen'", this piece in the Irish times has a senior Irish revenue official saying border controls could be automated, allowing checks to be made "without customs points".

This is from Tony Buckley, the assistant secretary in charge of customs, who says the new plan will involve a type of self-assessment and audit regime, possibly with, for convenience reasons, service offices close to the border. But the regime can be automated and simplified and does not need customs points with Northern Ireland.

All this illustrates an absolute determination to play down the potential impact of Brexit, but also with an element of a straw man argument. For instance, no one is seriously expecting the Common Travel Area (CTA) to be junked, so the prospect of private cars being stopped and searched at the border was never really on the cards.

Buckley was asked if he envisaged a system such as the one that exists between Norway and Sweden, to which he responded that that border involved delays of approximately 15-20 minutes for trucks, adding: "We're looking at that in seconds".

Because a border would be being "built from nothing", Buckley said, there was an opportunity to use very sophisticated tracking and surveillance systems that satisfied the EU, managed the risk, and achieved the Government’s objective of a "very soft borer" (sic).

The new regime, he admitted, would probably give rise to temporary criminal and economic issues that would have to be dealt with. However, he said, overall Ireland has two big advantages in terms of dealing with the new situation. The Republic's trade with Northern Ireland is only two percent of all exports, and Ireland is an island at one end of the EU without another land border. If something comes into Ireland, it is in Ireland and that's it, he said.

Why this strikes as fantasy is that the border with Norway and Sweden is between a fully-fledged EU Member State and an Efta/EEA state, with an established agreement on customs cooperation. Nothing like this exists at any land border between an EU state and a third country. To suggest that the EU can (or will) instantly approve a system far in advance of anything that currently exists in the EEA is truly dreaming.

Not least, as Angela Merkel has recently reminded her own people, the European Union needs to guard against the U.K. gaining an economic edge by easing regulation when it leaves the bloc.

That apart, the real issue at the border is not private cars but commercial traffic: all such vehicles would have to be monitored. But the current Border has approximately 300 crossing points, with one million heavy and 1.3 million light-goods vehicles crossing each way each year.

An automated regulatory system would require automatic number recognition, with gantries at each crossing point. It would we totally unrealistic to expect all of 300 crossings to be kitted out. Some restrictions on the number of crossings would be inevitable.

Then, there will be a significant number of physical inspections, with the volume being constantly under-rated. Even if deferred inspection was allowed (and there is no reason why it should not be), the number of inspection points would be limited. A considerable amount of traffic would have to be diverted.

The crucial issue, though, is not the technology but the nature of the agreement between the EU and the UK. And with Theresa May still talking about a "no deal" scenario, that leaves the possibility of a hard border, with no concessions to speed up the flow of traffic.

As an aside, the implications of a hard border between North and South are so horrendous that one could hardly envisage any sane government allowing it. But if that is the case, it makes a mockery of Mrs May's "no deal" threat.

Despite this, we have Buckley and friends saying that parties moving goods across the border would have to lodge documents with the two customs authorities, which they would put into a computerised risk-assessment system, thereby facilitating rapid processing of clearance documents.

But the point we've made before is that any sharing of computer data will require the UK to conform with EU data protection rules – and then for electronic systems to be compatible. Neither is assured. Nor can it be assumed that the existing authorised economic operator system will necessarily carry over. This will depend on the outcome of negotiations and full conformity with data protection rules.

There is, however, no end to the Buckley fantasy. The practical difficulties of searching 40ft refrigerated trucks along the Border, he says, was not something anyone wanted to contemplate. "So let’s not do it", he declares – as if that was a solution.

Whether a facility such as a Border Control Post is on the border, or a few miles from it is neither here nor there. Being required to divert traffic through the BCP is the problem.

The bigger problem, though, seems to be the institutional ignorance and unwarranted optimism we're getting from officials. No one is going to suggest that the technical problems are not insoluble. Given the political will between the parties, a satisfactory arrangement will be concluded. But simply to pretend that these problems do not exist is the height of foolishness.

Nevertheless, there is one area where Buckley has it right. If Ireland fails to operate an adequate EU external border, he says, it could compromise Ireland's position in the EU market and maybe with the whole world, he says. "So we are playing for very high stakes".

Never were truer words said.






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