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Fintan O'Toole: UK government's border proposals for Ireland are absurd
The British government has a lot of seducing to do. By October, it has to have persuaded all the EU member states that "sufficient progress" has been made on the three big preliminary issues: the monetary divorce bill; the mutual rights of British citizens living in the EU and vice versa; and Ireland. To put this more bluntly, if the Irish government is not persuaded that Britain has a serious plan for the avoidance of a hard border on what will be its only land frontier with the European Union, the talks on a post-Brexit final status are going nowhere. This reality seems to have dawned at last - hence a position paper that could not be more emollient if it came dripping with honey.

But to understand how this seems to the Irish government and to most people on the island, imagine you are in a decent job. It is reasonably paid, apparently secure and the working environment is quite amicable. Your neighbour, who you like but do not quite trust (there's a bit of history there) comes to you with a proposition. She's establishing an extremely risky start-up venture with a high probability of catastrophic failure. Will you join her? Well, you ask, what are the possible rewards? Ah, she says, if - against the odds - everything goes splendidly, you'll get the same pay and conditions you have now.


As with the whole Brexit project, the proposals for Ireland are credible only if you accept two mutually incompatible propositions: a) The UK is creating the biggest political and economic revolution since 1973; b) pretty much everything will stay the same. It fully concedes that the changes most of us fear from Brexit - the reimposition of a political and economic border and the reversal of so much of the progress made since the Good Friday agreement of 1998 - would be terrible. Indeed, it goes even further and characterises these changes as unacceptable. But it then goes on to suggest, in effect, that these utterly unacceptable things will not happen only if the EU gives the UK all the benefits of the customs union and the single market with none of the costs or restrictions.

The one really bold move in the paper is its rejection of the technological utopianism of the more enthusiastic Brexiteers, especially in the Democratic Unionist party. The commitment to "avoid any physical border infrastructure" means that there can be no CCTV cameras or registration-plate recognition systems. Magical machines are not going to take the place of human customs officers.

This is a welcome concession to reality, but it is predicated on an even bigger unreality: the assumption that the EU will agree to something quite extraordinary: that a 500km external EU border with more than 200 crossing points will be effectively unpoliced. People and goods will pass over it without let or hindrance. Smugglers, people traffickers and terrorists will go on their merry way unmolested. Small companies will not have to do customs checks at all; large ones will operate a charming honour system in which they retrospectively declare the goods they have moved and pay their duties.

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by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Aug 19th, 2017 at 10:24:48 AM EST
Purely intra-Ireland trade across the border is miniscule as a proportion of total EU trade if one discounts the trade by a few large firms like Diageo, Tesco, and big pharma.  These are already heavily policed and can pay any net tariffs due much like their VAT returns. OECD BEPS (Base erosion and profit shifting) proposals will require similar accounting in any case.

The remaining small firm and private individual trade can be safely ignored.  It is insignificant in EU terms and will represent some compensation for the loss of trade and inconvenience Brexit will create in other areas.  In practice, if not in theory, the customs border will be moved into the Irish sea.

Customs controls at Irish ports/airports will have to ensure that any Irish imports/exports are not destined for or originate from the UK using existing Certificate of Origin and end customer invoicing systems. This will result in a lot of additional work for Irish customs, but the additional cost of routing goods for the UK market through Ireland should limit such trade in any case.

The UK will be free to implement its own customs and immigration controls wherever it wants within it's own territory, and will quickly find that this is most practically done at N. Ireland air and sea ports - whatever the DUP might say.

The EU response to the UK proposals should therefore be to propose that N. Ireland, which didn't vote for Brexit, and which under the Good Friday Agreement is required to obtain a majority within Northern Ireland for major constitutional change, should remain within the Customs Union and Single Market thus moving the customs border (but not sovereign border) into the Irish sea..  

The DUP will freak out, but will be sold down the river once its votes in Westminster are no longer required. It cannot be otherwise, if Ireland is not to veto any post Brexit deal. If that means waiting until after the next Westminster elections, then so be it.  The EU can afford to wait. The UK less so.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Sat Aug 19th, 2017 at 11:03:32 AM EST
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