Irish politicians and diplomats are now finding themselves in an unholy alliance with pro-Brexit ideologues in the UK as they keep insisting that under no circumstance will there be any customs checks and border posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event of the UK quitting the Customs Union.
In the Tory election manifesto it states “Leaving the European Union also means we will be free to strike our own trade agreements with countries outside the EU.” This means leaving the Customs Union with very serious implications for Northern Ireland. On every EU external border with countries outside the Customs Union there are formal customs controls with the usual barriers and inspection buildings.
The former UK cabinet minster and a committee Brexiter, Owen Patterson, has told the BBC that the border would be like the one between the United States and Canada with electronic customs clearance taking place so physical border checks are not needed. That is true for big transborder firms like the Big 3 auto makers whose assembly and component plants are on both side of the Great Lakes.
But as anyone who have waited in line in a car to cross from the US into Canada and vice versa can testify the border checks are real. The EU and Switzerland also have border and customs control posts as do Sweden and Norway – the latter outside the EU Customs Union while Sweden is a full EU member. According to the Norwegian Embassy in London official there are staffed border posts and regular checks to ensure nothing comes into Norway that avoids the duties and tariffs required by law. Queues to cross from Norway into Sweden are the norm.
Between Ireland and the UK’s six counties in the North it may be possible to clear customs by electronic means for big ticket firms like Guinness. But there is a tariff of €1670 on every ton of hard cheese imported into the EU and it is hard to see continental Europe’s cheese producers turning a blind eye to tariff-free cheese trade between EU and non-EU Ireland.
On the assumption that the UK will be leaving the EU Customs Union, the chief EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier says he has told the French government they must set up centres de dedouanement (customs clearance halls) in every port on the French Atlantic coast that can receive a vessel that can transport goods from the UK.
The same will be true for Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Germany and Sweden. The idea that the EU will insist on proper borders with all its other friendly neighbours like Switzerland and Norway but make a special case for Northern Ireland is far-fetched despite the protests from Dublin and the blowhard Brexit statements in London that borders don’t need controls – not their line, of course, when it comes to European citizens.
One dramatic way of solving the problem would be for the UK to accept that all the island of Ireland was ring-fenced from Brexit and could stay in the EU Customs Union and Single Market. The politics and legal aspects of having a chunk of the UK in the EU even as mainland Britain becomes a “third country” and cut-off from today’s trading and export access are probably insurmountable.
The EU’s patience with Ireland’s exotic tax deals for foreign investment may now be running out. In terms of GDP per capita Ireland is the EU’s second richest country according to the IMF – US$65,871 for each Irish citizen compared to $40,412 for each Brit or $42,436 for each German. These figures flatter to deceive as the Irish total GDP is held by foreign firms who pay little tax and is not shared out with the Irish people.
Nonetheless, the days of Europe smiling forgivingly on Ireland’s tax laxity with Apple and other mainly US firms are over. So as Ireland grapples with how to handle Brexit and the frontier issue with the six countries still under UK suzerainty it faces a harsh dilemma. Do the Irish adopt Brexit language blaming it all on Brussels? Or after months of being in denial can the powerful Irish lobby – its business leaders and the diaspora in Britain and the English speaking world start to make clear that a full amputation of the UK from the EU’s Single Market and Custom’s Union is the final revenge of English nationalism on the people of Ireland ever since they had the impertinence to follow America 140 years later and assert their right to be a free and independent nation no longer ruled by the English?
Irish Times 22 May 2017
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe and a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners in Brussels.