British still focused on border cosmetics


Number plate recognition, joint north-south customs patrols, sure it’ll be no bother at all: this was the basic message of Brexit minister David Davis to the Commons Brexit Committee this week. “A very important part of the [Good Friday] peace agreement was the removal of any visible border,” he said. Yes, true up to a point but he neglected to add that the heavy lifting on border removal had already been done by the EU in the early 1990s. Davis is very taken with the way things are done on the Swedish-Norwegian border, where there is a free zone for both sets of customs officials 15 km into each other’s territory and a network of CCTV cameras with number plate recognition is currently being rolled out, but cars are seldom stopped.

He neglected to mention that while Norway is not in the customs union, it is in fact in the single market through the  EEA, so all those nice border checks are within the market. Since the referendum there have been many references by British ministers to the Irish border and the peace process and always there is this focus on the cosmetics, the appearance of checkpoints or customs barriers, as if life could go on as normal if only we could figure out how to have a low-profile border that people wouldn’t really notice very much. We got a great deal more realism from the House of Lords this week. We have to plan for a future in which the UK is out of the single market and customs union and a free trade agreement with the EU is some years away – we have to plan for WTO tariffs. Mr Davis might like to look at two just two figures.

  • 53.5% of cross-border trade is in food and agricultural products
  • WTO tariffs on these goods range from 10% to more than 60%

At these tariff rates cross-border trade will be devastated. More importantly, the producers will not be able to find alternative markets quickly enough to absorb the shock. We’ll notice that all right, on both sides of the border. It would be nice if Mr Davis had a plan.