Tuesday 26 March 2019

Why Britain needs a fairly hard border with the Irish Republic

The European Economic Area (EEA) includes the 28 EU countries and three, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are part of the Single Market but not the EU or its Customs Union.

They are members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), along with Switzerland, which is not part of the EEA, but belongs to the single market as a
 result of a complicated series of trade deals. They are not members of the EU Customs Union, which means they can sign their own trade deals with other countries, though in practice they are pretty closely aligned to the EU to make trade easy.

Nevertheless, imports of agricultural produce into Switzerland, for example, attract a whopping 30% tariff. There have to be some customs checks on goods travelling between EFTA countries and EU countries and it takes about 20 minutes on average for a lorry to pass from Norway to Sweden. 

Britain has to be reasonably content to have this happen at the border between Northern and Southern Ireland or no real Brexit is possible. Free movement of people is by no means a deal breaker and from some points of view the backstop has advantages for Britain (it lets us remain in the customs union without paying the membership fee), but we need a hard border if we are to be able to make trade deals with non-EU countries. Olly Robbins and the civil service see the backstop as a bridge to a free trade deal with the EU, but that would mean not being able to make a free trade deal with other countries such as the US. 

In fact to be pedantic we do not need a hard border and have said we shall not levy tariffs at it but the EU needs one, obviously, if we are not in the customs union. Tariffs might be levied away from the border, unlike on the Norwegian-Swedish border, several Irish customs experts have said.  I have argued this in my blog repeatedly but, if this is so, why does Norway not do this? 

And what in the end is so wrong with checking lorries at the border? Only a small proportion of Northern Irish trade is with the Republic, although most of the Republic's trade goes through the UK.

What is certain is that Theresa May was very foolish to give an undertaking at the start that there would be no hard border in Ireland, no doubt on advice from officials. Had she not done so Ireland would have helped us make a good deal with the EU instead of doing the reverse.

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