By Charlie Elphicke
In just over a year and a half we will be leaving the EU. Deal or no deal, we can be ready on day one to keep the Irish border as it is. The golden prize will be to secure the free movement of people, free passage of goods and a free trade agreement that will work both for us and this important neighbour. In practical terms, this means the Common Travel Area needs to be maintained. Customs systems should be introduced without checks at the border. A free trade agreement must be made – because tariffs would be economically damaging to the whole island of Ireland.
Free movement of people
The Common Travel Area (CTA) was established in 1923 after the Republic of Ireland became an independent state. It provides for the free movement of people from the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom without passport checks. Thanks to the CTA, it is possible simply to walk from the Republic to Northern Ireland without any such checks. Indeed, 30,000 people live one side of the border and work on the other.
Everyone agrees on the importance of keeping the CTA as it is now. The EU recognises the special nature of the CTA in Protocol 20 relating to Article 26 of the European Treaty, while paragraph 14 of the EU’s Brexit negotiating principles says maintaining the CTA is a key aim. The Irish Government, the British Government and Northern Irish political parties all want to maintain the CTA.
Given that all are agreed that the CTA must stay, this should be more a matter of practicality than principle. The question is: how can free movement be ended for EU citizens, while keeping the CTA? The pragmatic approach is to maintain free movement within the island of Ireland while passport checks are made on travel for all journeys from ports and airports to and from the United Kingdom.
Which already happens – as airlines and ferry operators already effectively require passports for travel between the island of Ireland and the mainland United Kingdom. This is for security, and to ensure accurate passenger manifests are kept. So unlike other parts of the Brexit jigsaw, it’s likely that the solution lies in not changing the existing system, but to build on it.
That airlines and ferry operators already effectively require passports makes pragmatism possible – namely, to enable an open border with no controls to be maintained within the island of Ireland, the CTA to be kept in place unchanged and the free movement of EU citizens within the United Kingdom (other than Northern Ireland) to be brought to an end. There is no need to create any kind of new border in the Irish Sea.
Free passage of goods
Maintaining trade in goods without border control posts or a free trade agreement is seen as a greater challenge. The Norway/Sweden model is often pointed to as a solution. Norway is outside the Customs Unions, yet is a member of the EU Single Market. There is no political aversion to border posts. And while the border is long, the passable routes are few. In the case of Ireland, the border is very passable in many places, and the aim is to avoid a physical border altogether.
The Norway / Sweden model may not be quite the right model to achieve the aim of no hard border in Ireland. Yet it does highlight that the key to a successful border is the level of co-operation and trust that each party places on the systems and checks of the other.
The key is to treat the border as a tax point, not a search point as detailed in my blueprint to be ready on day one at the Channel Ports. The system can operate as a self-assessment system like VAT. While the Irish border is open, there are already a number of measures in place, such as number plate monitoring technology, and a high degree of co-operation. Any necessary investigations and compliance audits can be made at workplaces on both sides of the border: political will and co-operation can make this achievable.
Building on the existing infrastructure, there need not be long delays at the border as long as systems are properly organised. It should be possible to avoid border checks – other than those linked to criminality – so long as the mutual recognition of foodstuffs continues. This would enable the virtual border suggested by the former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to become a reality for customs after Brexit.
Free trade agreement
Tariffs will have a negative impact on the UK and a terrible impact on the economy of the Republic of Ireland. In 2016, the UK imported £17 billion of goods and services from the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Government estimates that tariffs would see trade fall by a third and 40,000 people lose their jobs in the Republic. It is also estimated that the Irish national debt would increase by €20 Billion within five years.
The new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is right in seeking to avoid tariffs. His calls for the UK to remain inside a customs union with the EU or for there to be a free trade agreement with the UK are deeply in his national interest. If the UK is to be free to make trade deals around the world, it won’t be possible to remain in the EU Customs Union. The EU making a free trade agreement with the UK is therefore not just a test of the UK: it is a test of the EU whether it can balance the economic interests of a member state, Ireland, with its desire to have a robust response to Britain deciding to leave the EU.
As the clock ticks down on our departing the EU, we can be ready on day one to preserve the free movement of people and the free passage of goods between the UK and Ireland. Yet delivering a free trade agreement is harder as it is not within the sole control of either the UK or Ireland. The focus of Ireland and the EU, as much as the UK, should be on avoiding tariffs by securing a UK-EU free trade agreement.