Border will be soft on the  outside, crunchy on the inside

Border will be soft on the outside, crunchy on the inside

We all enjoy taking the mickey out of Boris Johnson, but it’s not really his fault – he is the expensively educated product of an insular culture which knows absolutely nothing about borders or how they work.

Immediately after the referendum we were assured there would be ‘no return to the borders of the past’. To English commentators that meant no hillside fortresses, no soldiers or roadblocks. Those of us who grew up on the border hoped it also meant there would be no customs squads seizing vans with a hundredweight of contraband pigmeal in the back, no unapproved roads or spiked roads or ten-mile detours, no VAT at point of entry and so on. But when we bring up these things the Boris Johnsons of the world just stare blankly because they literally have no idea.

Then the commentators began to talk about ‘ no hard borders’, which sounded better, but we soon realised they were still talking about guns and foot patrols, not about duty on pigmeal. But gradually Brexiteers came to realise they were playing with fire, not to mention even more dangerous chemical substances and they began to take the border issue more seriously.

However, they had got the idea that people in Ireland were just a bit touchy or obsessive about the physical manifestation of the border, about visible infrastructure. If we couldn’t actually see it, if it wasn’t in our faces, we would be fine, they thought. So we began to hear plans for high-technology solutions, CCTV with number-plate recognition and so on, which would allow us to whizz along the shiny new motorway to Dublin without a care. They talked a lot about the border between Norway and Sweden, blithely ignoring the fact that both are in the EEA single market.

They offered no concept of an economic manifestation, of economic consequences; others who raised it were told the UK had no plans for that sort of border and if the EU had, it would all be their fault. This time it was not just Boris Johnson: we get this kind of guff from Stormont politicians as well.

So here are a few examples of reality.

  • If the UK leaves the customs union, the EU’s common external tariff will apply to the 800-900 million litres of  Northern Ireland milk that goes south for processing. The milk tariff ranges up to 54% and that whole trade will instantly become uneconomic. Also uneconomic: cream from 200 million litres of southern milk used by Baileys Irish Cream in Mallusk, and 70 million litres of Wexford milk processed in Omagh and returned south to the liquid milk market.
  • The whole cheddar cheese trade between the Republic and the UK, comprising 75,000 tonnes a year, will instantly become uneconomic with tariffs north of 50%. That will have side-effects on northern dairy farms.
  • All goods going from north to south, whether there is a tariff or not,will require VAT of 23% of value to be paid at the border. The normal VAT exemption on turnover of less than £85,000 a year will not apply.

This is not just about customs and duties or tariffs. The north-south economy is highly integrated at all levels and there will be a high cost in disruption of supply chains. Engineering companies across Ireland rely on parts from across the border or from England. Retail will be hard hit: those huge Marks & Spencer trucks will no longer be able to deliver to stores from Belfast to Dublin in a single run when the stores are in different duty regimes.

Anyone who doubts these difficulties should take a good look at “Potential impact of WTO tariffs on cross-border trade“, published by Intertrade Ireland in June 2017.

There is no way the  post-Brexit border can be made invisible, or so low-profile that we and the dissidents won’t even notice it. The only sensible definition of a soft border is the one we have now. There is no high-tech solution which is so clever that it will pay the tariff on the milk. But most important of all, there is no clever scheme which will combat the negative impact that will result from disruption of our highly integrated  north-south economy, from agrifoods to manufacturing and retailing. The Brexiteers will not produce such a scheme because they refuse to even discuss the issue.