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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

Irish Border Issue

The EU's backstop is not an insurance policy but a trap (Roger Kendrick in BrexitCentral, 22 October.)

"The backstop is not an insurance policy which will never be needed or used. It is an ingenious device developed by the EU to create a comprehensive lock on the future trade and regulatory policy of the UK thereby ensuring that the UK would be under the absolute control of the EU and ECJ and could never effectively compete with the EU. The EU's negotiating strategy is brilliant and the UK would be the suckers. With any form of effective backstop, the UK would become a powerless vassal state with no negotiating position in terms of trade or any other policies that the EU chose to impose and the £39 billion would have been committed irrevocably."

The EU has weaponised the Irish border issue, and Theresa May completely fell into the trap. She has told Leo Varadkar that she accepts the EU's demands that any fall-back border solution cannot be 'time-limited'. She made the admission in a meeting with the Taioseach just hours before telling other leaders that she would consider extending the transition period. Mr Varadkar said, "We all recognise that it can't be time-limited in the sense that it can't have an expiry date."

The following is an extract from Chapter 6 of my book, Brexit: the road to freedom.

The long-established Anglo-Irish Common Travel Area, which goes back to 1923, is a matter exclusively for the British and Irish governments and is not an EU matter. Irish people will continue to move freely between the two islands and across the North-South border in Ireland as they have always done. The British government's negotiating directives said, "Existing bilateral agreements and arrangements between Ireland and the United Kingdom, such as the Common Travel Area, which are in conformity with EU law, should be recognised."

The governments of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland have committed to not erecting a hard border on the island of Ireland. Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny said on 2 November 2015 of the UK-Irish border, "Neither I, nor the Prime Minister, desire to limit the freedom of people on both sides of the Irish Sea to trade, to live, to work, to travel freely across these islands. Therefore, we have agreed that the benefits of the Common Travel Area be preserved."

The head of Irish customs has said that it is 'practically 100% certain' there would be no customs facilities along the border. Jon Thompson, Permanent Secretary at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, agreed, "it is perfectly possible that absolutely nothing happens at the border." He told the Brexit Select Committee that a streamlined customs arrangement could 'cover the vast majority of the trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland' and that any checks could be 'intelligence-based' and 'well away from the legal border'. Even the European Commission confirmed in November 2017 that there was no need for physical border checks in Ireland.

Passenger information is already collected because the Republic is not part of the Schengen passport-free zone. So, border checks can be carried out electronically. All that is needed is proper information-sharing between British and Irish border forces. Such cooperation is already strong. A UK-Ireland Border Working Group should be established alongside existing high-level cooperation to plan, supervise and evaluate progress.

We already run one of the world's most efficient customs systems. In 2016, the World Bank ranked us fifth in the world on customs performance. The World Bank Logistics Performance Index for fifteen developed countries showed that in 2016 98 per cent of all goods were cleared with no border checks and the median clearance time of the other 2 per cent was one day – most within a few hours.

General transport costs have already fallen to very low levels due to containerisation and computerisation of customs procedures, and the 'virtual border' - mandatory under WTO rules - has nearly ended border costs. Further, services were more than 40 per cent of our exports and trade in services was not subject to border formalities and was weightless. Technology minimised friction at the present customs borders.

A customs border will be required but the border can be almost invisible. Measures can be adopted to reduce its visibility drawing on the experience of the customs union border between Sweden and Norway. Cross-border trade along Ireland's internal border comprises mostly goods related to the food and building industries which can be documented online and cleared via an automated e-border, so trucks can cross without needing to stop. Physical inspections of non-EU shipments were extremely rare. In practice, containers were opened only when intelligence indicated illegal activity. For instance, in the port of Bristol only two containers had been opened in 2015 and two in 2016. Inspections – when exceptionally required – should take place at dedicated zones away from the border, with UK checks recognised by Ireland and vice versa. Almost all customs declarations were received electronically and could be lodged before goods arrived. The same approach should be extended to shipments from the EU.

Most countries let traders submit their customs documentation electronically in advance of the goods arriving at the border. Nearly all the submissions of the EU's own Single Administrative Document (SAD) for declaring imports and exports were made online. This meant that most trade arriving from countries that were members of neither the single market nor the customs union had little or no delay at the border when entering the EU. There was no reason for this to change after we left the EU.

A report on the use of electronic customs clearing and border checks, commissioned by the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) of the European Parliament and undertaken by the EU Commission's Directorate General for Internal Policies, showed how electronic border arrangements could work.[i] The report's author is the EU's own customs expert, Lars Karlsson, the former Director of World Customs Organization, and Deputy Director General of Swedish Customs. This study identified international standards, best practices and technologies that could be used to avoid a 'hard' border as well as case studies that provided insights into creating a smooth border experience. Modern technology means that borders do not need physical customs posts, not even cameras. Karlsson envisaged 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. Karlsson stated that this would be 'a border without any new infrastructure… what you would describe as a frictionless border'. This solution offered a template for future UK-EU border relationships.

The National Audit Office reported in June 2018, "HMRC expects it will take a further three months to scale up the operational CHIEF [Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight] system. If it successfully completes this work, HMRC should have the system capacity to handle customs declarations no matter what the outcome of negotiations between the UK and the EU. HMRC is confident that CHIEF will be able to handle the increased volume of declarations, and that it remains a reliable system that is suitable for a short term contingency arrangement."[ii]

Annual EU-Switzerland trade was a hundred times greater than Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland trade, yet the many Swiss border crossings to the EU were often completely unmanned, despite Switzerland being in neither the EU's single market nor its customs union. In 2012 the Swiss estimated that their total EU-Switzerland border costs were just 0.1 per cent of trade value. Border frictions were non-existent because their products met EU standards.

The US and Canada were not in a customs union, yet more goods crossed the US/Canadian border each year than did the EU's external border - with no delays. In the port of Felixstowe, there is not a customs officer in sight, yet it handles £80 billion of trade a year - £77 billion more than the Irish border - without a hitch. They use a tried-and-tested digital cargo-tracking system developed in Felixstowe, known as Destin8, which has worked so well for more than a decade that it processed most of the non-EU maritime trade coming into this country. So there would be no need for checkpoints or customs officials at the border.

A poll taken on 29-31 May 2018 found that, if people had to choose between leaving the customs union and avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, 41 per cent in Great Britain said they would leave the customs union, 32 per cent said they would stay to avoid a hard border, and 27 per cent didn't know.[iii] Three quarters of Conservatives and Leave voters in Great Britain agreed that the border issue was being "deliberately exaggerated by politicians and others to suit their own political agenda."[iv] The EU was indeed trying to use nationalists in Scotland and Ireland to break Britain apart.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on 18 July, "President Juncker and my EU colleagues have on many occasions said that they wouldn't require us to put in place a physical infrastructure and customs checks on the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland."

If Northern Ireland alone were to remain in a customs union with the EU, this would prevent it from benefitting from future trading arrangements put in place by the rest of the UK after Brexit. Prioritising the 23 per cent of Northern Irish trade with the EU (including the Republic of Ireland) over the 77 per cent with Britain and the rest of the world would clearly be a mistake.

Our leaving the EU will not damage the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The passing references to the EU in the Agreement's text allow of no such interpretation. The Agreement was a bilateral agreement between the British and Irish governments and a multilateral agreement by most of Northern Ireland's political parties. The EU was not a party to the Agreement. On 17 January 2017 the Supreme Court rejected the claim that Brexit undermined the Agreement on the grounds that the Agreement covered Northern Ireland's place in the UK but not its place in the EU. Former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party David Trimble has said that it "is not true that Brexit in any way threatens the peace process … There is no reason it can't continue to be policed without hard barriers, even after Brexit."

[i] Smart Border 2.0 – Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons. Policy Department for Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs, Directorate General for Internal Policies, PR 596.828 - November 2017.

[ii] The Customs Declaration Service: a progress update, HC 1124 Session 2017–2019, 28 June 2018

[iii] Lord Ashcroft, Brexit, the border and the Union, Lord Ashcroft Polls, June 2018, p. 6.

[iv] Lord Ashcroft, Brexit, the border and the Union, Lord Ashcroft Polls, June 2018, p. 6.

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