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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.

Borderline Sanity

​Author: Marcus Watney

Source: The feasibility of using technology to avoid a hard Irish border has been confirmed by Lars Karlsson in his excellent study for the European Parliament Smart Border 2.0, published in November 2017. It is available here:

Resolving the Irish border question requires thinking outside the box, a great leap sideways of lateral thought, recognition that a border does not have to be one-dimensional. It is possible to protect the Good Friday Agreement by maintaining a hassle-free Irish border while the UK is outside the EU customs union.

Perhaps the most well-known example of a two-dimensional border was the one between Iraq and Arabia, marked on maps as a diamond-shaped area just to the west of Kuwait, that existed between 1922 and 1981. It was an agreement to disagree, designed to avoid hostilities. Its relevance here is that the treaty creating it stipulated that the nomads of both countries could roam freely within it. For Iraqis the border was the southern line and for Arabians the border was the northern line.

That is to say, a border can mean different things to different people.

In the Euler Diagram below, the black central vertical line is the border between the United Kingdom and the EU, hard, soft or squidgy depending how the negotiations pan out. The green ellipse is the island of Ireland, now to be designated a Special Economic Zone.

How do the two interact? The underlying theory is simple: different strokes for different folks. The new Special Economic Zone will allow citizens and businesses based in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to ignore the Irish border (shown in dashed black inside the ellipse) exactly as at present. The Irish border becomes a hard border only for those from outside the island of Ireland. Tariffs are not applied to intra-island trade (i.e. trade originating and ending in the island of Ireland).

Implementation is straight forward. At or close to the Irish border, the number plates of commercial vehicles registered to businesses (using trusted trader rules) in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are used by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to confirm their right to pass freely, in exactly the same way as payment of the London Congestion charge is checked. There are no barriers. Vehicles are not stopped at the border.

Small private passenger vehicles from the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain cross the Irish border freely as per the Common Travel Area agreement.

Commercial vehicles which are not registered (i.e. are from outside the island of Ireland) are required to cross at one of a handful of designated manned crossing-points and pull over to complete the usual border formalities (as with the Norway-Sweden border). The customs post can be some distance from the border, at any convenient location.

If they do not pull over, the ANPR cameras will have logged their passing and they can be summonsed subsequently or pursued, exactly as is done for vehicles which enter London's Congestion Zone without paying. Because these vehicles are foreign, border controls for them do not breach the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

In detail, the permutations shown by the Euler Diagram are:

  • The dashed black border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is a customs border only for vehicles registered in neither the Irish Republic nor Northern Ireland (thus protecting the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement). Citizens of the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and Britain on foot or in cars pass freely under the terms of the existing Common Travel Area;
  • The black border between the EU and the UK outside the green ellipse is the EU external border affecting all traffic not travelling via the island of Ireland;
  • The green border between the Irish Republic and the European Union is a customs border only for citizens and vehicles registered in Northern Ireland or Britain;
  • The green border between Northern Ireland and Britain is a customs border only for commercial vehicles registered in the Irish Republic (thus meeting DUP concerns). Citizens of the Irish Republic on foot or in cars pass freely under the terms of the existing Common Travel Area.

The exact parameters above can of course be adjusted as the parties feel appropriate. The important thing is the overall concept, that so far as the island is concerned there is not one borderline but three, only one of which is applicable to any particular individual or business.

There is a difference between a political border (a line on the map) and a practical border (beyond which customs duty may be payable). The practical Irish border will be defined by the position of the line of ANPR cameras. These cameras are very discreet and often not noticed, but, in keeping with the Prime Minister's commitment, they can be set some way back from the border so that the sensibilities of border communities are respected. Since the EU's concern is southward smuggling from the UK into the European Union, the Republic, on the other hand, has a very strong incentive to place its cameras close to their side of the border so as to protect the integrity of the EU customs union and the Single Market.

Citizens and commercial vehicles inconvenienced by the last two bullet points are expected to be few, for on the island of Ireland the largest traffic flow is UK traffic between Northern Ireland and Britain, while the second largest flow is between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. In the case of the latter, each month more than 173,000 heavy good vehicles, 208,000 light goods vehicles and 3.1 million cars cross the Irish border, with 50% of HGVs from Northern Ireland using the Newry-Dundalk crossing. It is estimated that 23,000 commuters cross the border each weekday.

Transit traffic, from Dublin to France via Wales and vice versa, can be simplified using the Common Transit Procedure which Switzerland has found to be so effective. A tax on transit (to contribute to the maintenance of roads) can be levied via a meter in the cab.

With ANPR cameras at or beyond even the smallest unmarked crossing point, there is unlikely to be significant smuggling between the continental EU and Britain via the island of Ireland. This means queues at designated manned lay-bys away from the border are likely to be very short, negligible if electronic customs clearing is implemented (using this system, those trucks coming from the continental EU who pre-register their crossing into the UK and are cleared before arrival will not be required to stop).

As with the Norway-Sweden border, stopping a sample of vehicles using risk assessment techniques will enforce the system. The Irish Government cannot complain that this hardens the border as for many years customs officers from the Republic have been stopping motorists near the border, checking that their vehicles are correctly registered for the Republic's Vehicle Registration Tax and that agricultural diesel is not being used for private journeys.

In the context of a conventional border with no Special Economic Zone, Theresa May's suggestion in March 2018 that small commercial vehicles, claimed to represent 80% of commercial traffic, will not be stopped or checked at the Irish border has been rejected by the Irish Government, who warn that this will be unacceptable to the EU as it offers an easy route into the EU for smugglers. The Swiss concur, pointing out that giving a free pass to vans will merely encourage smugglers to use vans rather than lorries. Successful customs control of a border requires unpredictability.

The proposal made here, Borderline Sanity, resolves this issue by separating a conventional border into three threads. It is as if two giant hands have grasped the Irish border and stretched it north and south, to create between the two outer threads not no-man's-land but Irish-land.

What goes on in the island of Ireland is a bilateral issue. The doctrine of subsidiarity should ensure that the EU accepts whatever mutually beneficial agreement the two nations come to (though unfortunately the EU's record on complying with its own doctrine is very poor). The success of the Le Touquet agreement shows what can be achieved when good will on both sides creates a flexible attitude to a line on the map.

How will the creation of a tariff-free Special Economic Zone affect the other areas of the Republic's membership of the European Union?

On 7 February 2018 Professor Yarrow confirmed to the Commons Committee on Exiting the European Union that remaining in the EEA (Single Market) via an EFTA-like Association Agreement which thereby replaces the Citizens' Rights Directive with Article 28 of the EFTA-EA Agreement "ticks all the major Leave boxes". As explained in The Art of the Possible, Article 28 gives to the host meaningful but not absolute control of immigration.

If the UK nonetheless does leave the Single Market, this will of course generate a wide range of issues across the entire spectrum. Extra implications for the Special Economic Zone, however, are slight. The Single Market regulates business activity and production so does not have a noticeable effect at the point of sale. With the relaxation of regulations, businesses solely operating in Northern Ireland may gain a competitive advantage relative to rivals in the Republic (businesses with operations on both sides of the border are likely to follow Single Market regulations voluntarily). That said, a number of the EU's neighbours participate only partially in the Single Market and yet still export their other goods to the EU successfully (tariffs are imposed by a customs union not by the Single Market). Issues that may arise will primarily be regulatory (e.g. divergence).

VAT is another non-issue. Presently, the EU sets a minimum rate of 15% on most goods and services and 5% on a few essentials. After Brexit the UK will regain full control of VAT and may remove it at will from any products or services it wishes. This potential imbalance is not an issue. Many adjacent countries have different VAT regimes without problems arising. For example, VAT is generally higher in Norway than in Sweden, particularly on alcohol and tobacco, so it has become quite normal and accepted for Norwegians to go shopping in Sweden and on return to take advantage of a generous duty-free allowance.

In fact the biggest imbalances will come from currency fluctuations. These are a necessary and accepted side-effect of a floating currency, a price worth paying for the security of a tradable currency. And the island of Ireland is used to these fluctuations: there have been two currencies on the island since 1979 when the Irish Republic ended its link with sterling.

Much will depend on the flexibility the European Union shows when considering imaginative solutions to the tricky question of the Irish border. The divided island of Cyprus, with its Green Line border, is rather obviously not an exemplar, except perhaps in one particular. An EU Regulation of 2004 mandates "special rules concerning the crossing of goods services and persons" between north and south. This Regulation allows tariff-free trade from north to south across the Green Line provided the goods originated on the island. Third parties (e.g. Turkey) are not afforded this privilege. This is somewhat similar (though not of course identical) to aspects of the Special Economic Zone proposed here. It does at least show that the EU can be flexible when it matters.

The DUP does not want to have a border in the Irish Sea, but the people of Northern Ireland voted Remain. Squaring this circle in all areas is going to be a challenge. For without some divergence there is no Brexit. The attraction of a Special Economic Zone described here is that the people of Northern Ireland get the best of both worlds, with no border checks when crossing into the Irish Republic nor when crossing to Britain.

Beyond the creation of a tariff-free Special Economic Zone, resolving other issues is for Stormont not Westminster. After all, sensitivity to local opinion is the whole point of devolved government. In every area, there will be advantages and disadvantages to weigh up. Once the power-sharing executive is re-established, Stormont may very well decide to diverge from EU practices in certain areas and converge in others. Ultimately, that must be the decision of the people of Northern Ireland.

The customs protocols of two countries which border the EU (Norway and Switzerland) are considered next. Although the Prime Minister has expressed a preference for the US-Canada model, it is not considered here because NAFTA is markedly different from the EU. Also the Irish Government has stated it opposition to the US-Canada approach.

The Norway-Sweden Border

Sources: Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 1 November 2017, Smart Border 2.0 by Lars Karlsson November 2017, Lords Committee on the European Union 6 February 2018, Commons Exiting the EU Committee 7 February 2018.

How the border between Norway and Sweden works provides a good idea how the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic could work. Both Norway and Sweden are in the Schengen Area, just as the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom are in the Common Travel Area, so the movement of people across the border is not an issue. However, Sweden is in the EU customs union while Norway is not, just as the Irish Republic is in the customs union and the UK will not be.

The Norwegian customs service employs 1600 staff. There are fifty-seven crossing points along the thousand-mile Norway-Sweden border (compared with more than two hundred along the 310-mile long Irish border), but only eleven of them are manned with customs officers. Some trucks stop at these designated customs posts in order to get clearance for their cargoes, but many more trucks pass through with minimal delay, having declared their loads electronically before setting out. Pre-notification is not mandatory for movements within the EU and EFTA, but is for movements involving third countries.

Norway's membership of the Single Market means that there are common standard on goods in general which lessens friction experienced by imports and exports.

Between 1.5% and 2% of HGVs are stopped. These checks are not random but are based on risk analysis. Since 2011 Norway has used ANPR cameras to monitor unmanned crossings and track suspicious vehicles. ANPR cameras record the license plates of all vehicles crossing at all border points and these records are kept for six months. They are used to identify suspicious movements. The Norwegian customs authorities believe mobile patrols in support of ANPR cameras are essential.

Integrated Border Management is in place along the Norway-Sweden border, with customs officers from each nation authorised to operate in the other for a distance of fifteen kilometres. The customs officers of one nation are permitted to undertake customs controls on the other nation's behalf, and information is shared. This means that most of the eleven customs posts are manned by staff from only one of the nations and the post itself can be set back from the border.

However, at the busiest customs post, in the south of Norway, in a single building Norwegian staff process Swedish exports and Norwegian imports, while Swedish staff process Norwegian exports and Swedish imports. At that busy border crossing about 8000 vehicles arrive a week. The average delay is three and a half minutes and a single customs officer can process about one hundred lorries a day.

Norway and Sweden expect cargo summaries to be submitted electronically not less than one hour before arrival at the border. Clearance is usually given in three to nine minutes. In peak periods trucks can cross even before formal clearance is given. Businesses can also arrange to defer payment of duty and VAT, in which case a full declaration must be made within ten days.

The Norwegian authorities stress that a good relationship between the two nations is essential for the efficient operation of a smart border. The Norway-Sweden border is not entirely frictionless, but friction is so slight that it is close to negligible.

From June 2018, Norway will start rolling out an Express Clearance system by which all notifications, declarations, driver identities and clearances are dealt with electronically well in advance of the lorry's arrival at the border so that it does not have to stop at all.

The fully-integrated Norway-Sweden customs system is considered to be the most advanced in the world.

The Switzerland-EU border

Sources: Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 1 November 2017, Commons Exiting the EU Committee 6 February 2018, Lords Committee on the European Union 6 February 2018.

The Swiss border stretches for 1150 miles compared with the Irish border's modest 310 miles.

Swiss border systems are not as well developed as between Norway and Sweden. In addition traffic flows are very much heavier. Every day 2.1 million people and 26,000 HGVs cross the border, more than twice the UK flow. Switzerland has 5000 customs personnel, consisting of 2200 customs officers, 2100 border guards and about 700 administrators. This force has to cover 120 official crossing points (equipped with ANPR cameras) plus countless unofficial ones. Salaries cost the state about 600 million Swiss francs a year. The total budget is about 1.5 billion Swiss francs per year. It has been estimated that the economic cost of all the customs checks (on imports and exports) is about 450 million Swiss francs per year, though much of this is unavoidable or is due to complex issues such as exports to China. The Swiss customs service tries, as much as is possible, to offer traders a one-shop service with specialists such as vets available in-house to deal with wider issues. This reduces administrative burdens. In 2018 an app will be available for smart phones allowing those crossing the border to make customs declarations wherever they may be.

The ethos of the customs service is to keep the economic costs of controls as low as possible.

Switzerland has significant transit traffic (north-south or east-west), for example from Genoa to Rotterdam. Switzerland uses the Common Transit Procedure to facilitate this traffic. CPT allows goods to be transported with a minimum of formalities by suspending duties and national taxes between the customs territories of the sending and receiving nations. The procedure is processed electronically. So a truck crossing Switzerland from Basel in the northwest to Chiasso on the Italian border will be delayed at the Basel post for typically only 90 seconds. Each year approximately 10 million transits are eligible to use the CTP system.

The Republic of Ireland uses the UK as a land-bridge to the continent. After Brexit, the CTP system will be useful to speed goods from the Republic to the continent via the UK and vice versa.

Even though Switzerland is a member of neither the customs union nor the European Economic Area, in most areas the Swiss and the EU rules are similar. For Switzerland, a product that complies with EU rules in most cases also complies with Swiss rules. In

some cases, the rules are equivalent. This speeds up customs formalities greatly.

As with the Irish border, supply chains may require components and products to cross the Swiss border back-and-forth a number of times. There are some 300 farms which straddle the Irish border. Likewise, many Swiss farmers have land across the border in Germany or France. The Swiss customs service is of course primarily a police force, but also sees itself as a service provider and will work with SMEs to find practical solutions to their particular concerns. For farmers, the Swiss have a simplified system adapted to the local situation. The Swiss system, being based on risk assessment, is flexible enough to cater for different needs, although recently the EU has been trying to inflict a more rigid one-size-fits-all system on everybody.

The Swiss collaborate closely with their neighbours. For example, mixed Swiss-German teams of customs officers patrol inside Germany and Switzerland, and German helicopters fly over Switzerland and Germany with Swiss and German officers on board. There are joint police posts.

Trucks have to pay per mile traversed on Swiss roads, but this is done electronically using a meter in the cab. Clearing imports does not take long because the Swiss customs officers are given all the details in advance.

Swiss risk assessment techniques are comprehensive, involving not only personnel scanning cars at the manned borders and ANPR cameras (data is kept for 30 days) but also analysis of traffic flows and customs officers positioned away from the frontier watching for suspicious movements. In 2017, using this system 48,000 illegal migrants were caught crossing the border.

Switzerland switched from static controls to mobile controls because the latter were found to be more successful. The fundamental formula is ANPR cameras backed-up with mobile patrols for enforcement. Thus Swiss plain-clothes customs officers patrol trains and make spot checks, and patrol roads in unmarked vehicles.

Switzerland is keen to emulate Norway and Sweden and improve its system. To this end in 2017 the Swiss Parliament allocated £300 million to the transformation and digitisation of Swiss customs. The intention is to have automatic control of the flow of traffic across the border. By getting all the information needed in advance, only suspect vehicles will then need to be stopped.

The Swiss find parts of the new Union Customs Code (UCC) irritating, because it is a one-size-fits-all code lacking the pragmatic flexibility of which the Swiss are proud. For example, it takes no account of how developed an economy is. But there is hope that the EU will adjust the UCC to be more accommodating.

So far as the Irish border is concerned, Swiss advice is that effective but hassle-free and discreet border controls can be established there without visible check points. That is to say, the minimal-friction soft border which all political parties desire is achievable.

The Swiss identify the following prerequisites of a smart soft Irish border:

  • the comprehensive use of ANPR cameras to provide input to effective risk assessment algorithms;
  • mixed mobile patrols between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland staffed with professionals from both sides of the border, with local knowledge and with a common goal of finding irregularities;
  • an intelligence strategy focussed on what is being looked for;
  • control points not at the border but rather in the countryside some distance away, and even some with the larger enterprises themselves;
  • a system of electronic pre-declaration of cargo movements;
  • a system that speeds-through low risk trade (e.g. milk), for example by requiring from local trusted traders merely a monthly statement of past movements, backed up by occasional checks.
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