In Boris Johnson’s resignation speech to the House of Commons he said that the idea of a technological solution to the Irish border dilemma had unfortunately become ‘taboo’, with David Davis’ proposals on this front ‘never even properly examined’. To further this point he recently wrote in a Mail on Sunday column:
The Irish currently use their ports and airports to check only one per cent of goods arriving from anywhere outside the EU, let alone the UK. We live in a world of smartphone apps and electronic forms and Authorised Economic Operator schemes. There is no need for any kind of friction at the border at all.
As Jon Thompson, the head of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, told the House of Commons: ‘We do not believe – and this has been our consistent advice to Ministers – we do not believe we require any infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland under any circumstances.
Dr Graham Gudgin, former Special Advisor to the first minister of Northern Ireland, thinks that the resistance to a technological solution to the Irish border issue is purely political:
The give-away in the debate over the Irish border is how little interest the EU, Irish Government and UK Remainers have in exploring the Smart Border or FTA options. A constructive approach would be to explore the options in a co-operative fashion and to decide what can or cannot reasonably be adopted. This is never suggested, and we must conclude that the blanket dismissal of technological options is being used for wider political purposes.
Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s brexit spokesman, mirrors Dr Gudgin’s view on this point:
All of the evidence from existing trade facilitation arrangements within the EU between the EU and third countries and between other major trading partners outside the EU illustrate that there are technical remedies the issue is one of political will. [sic]
The EU Parliament commissioned a report into the feasibility of a technological solution, and this report laid out how such a system could work by drawing from and expanding on current examples such as the Norway-Sweden and USA-Canada borders.
It was dismissed by remainers, unsurprisingly, with arguments such as ‘the Canada-USA border still requires border personnel’. This was one criticism in The Independent’s hatchet job. It is not untrue, but doesn’t acknowledge that the report is not suggesting that we fully copy any existing solution, but rather that we utilise the existing solutions and improve upon them to create something completely new that fulfils the requirements of our situation.
Another argument made in The Independent’s article against this report is the lack of detail on agri-food standards. It is true that the report doesn’t go into detail in this area, so the Independent has made a valid point. Unfortunately, instead of offering helpful ideas as to how this issue could be addressed, The Independent uses the lack of detail as ammunition with which to attack the entire concept of a technological border solution. Dr Gudgin gives us a possible solution to this issue:
At the Irish land Border, there is however a case for continued alignment of animal health and food safety standards. It is unlikely that standards will diverge substantially in future and hence that the EU can regard UK standards as ‘equivalent’ to their own. As a fall-back it may not be unreasonable to regard the whole island as a single regulatory regime, implying checks on animals and fresh produce at the Irish sea coming into Northern Ireland. Ulster unionists are rightly concerned at any attempt to drive wedges between Northern Ireland and GB, but in this case there are few important constitutional issues. Such checks have been applied in the past during animal health epidemics and could occasionally be used in future.
Shankar Singham, Director of the International Trade and Competition Unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs, makes a similar proposal:
This process of mutual recognition of accreditations and inspection regimes within member states removes the need for safety checks at the borders, and it is in the interests of both the EU and the UK to maintain this, which could be agreed in a free trade agreement (FTA). The EU has agreed mutual recognition of sanitary measures for meat and animals with Canada and New Zealand, and consequently reduced the number of border inspections of meat products from those countries.
The European Research Group (ERG) has also endorsed this line of reasoning in a report on the Irish border. The report’s summary states several measures as means to achieving frictionless trade with regard to Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS), which deal with food, animal and plant movements:
• Maintenance of the all island Common Biosecurity Zone.
• Mutual Recognition of SPS standards on either side of the border.
• Pre-export inspections on SPS and regulatory alignment can be outsourced to licensed private inspection companies.
• EU precedent suggests that even where SPS checks are necessary, they can take place some 20 km from the border (as, for example, in Rotterdam). Details would be contained in a transit declaration and obviate the need for new infrastructure at the border.
The Common Biosecurity Zone appears to be a continuation of the current alignment of standards between the north and south. This is similar to what Dr Gudgin suggested, albeit more rigorous. It would require permanent SPS checks at the Irish Sea, although, as Dr Gudgin points out, these have been implemented in the past so are not unprecedented. According to the ERG report this concept is acceptable throughout the island of Ireland, and will create a strong defense for the island against pests and diseases, utilising the natural encompassing asset of the sea as a barrier.
The BBC, in its rush to discredit this report, made a false claim about its contents. The BBC reported:
The ERG also describes the VAT system as providing a framework for streamlining customs controls.
That streamlining involves:
• filing documents electronically
• the use of licensed customs brokers
• having any inspections at the factory rather than the border
• Familiar plans for “trusted trader” schemes are also laid out.
The concern for small businesses in particular is that this is not frictionless trade – it means more red tape and the use of customs brokers, for example, would mean additional costs.
The ERG report doesn’t suggest the use of customs brokers for small businesses, but rather suggests that exemption schemes could be implemented for them. This BBC blunder is just another example of the unhelpful approach taken by those who are clearly upset about Brexit and are not willing to accept it.
As can be seen from this brief foray into the border issue, there are solutions being put forward from more than one direction that are not being taken seriously by the remain leaning press. Hopefully the sheer intelligence and sobriety of these proposals is enough to break through the well-funded and widespread attempts to derail Brexit through overstating and politicising the issue with the Irish border.