John Simpson: Why there is more than one border to fix in these Brexit negotiations
There will be no hard border, that bit is agreed… or is it? Sadly, the search to avoid a hard border is an ambition whose meaning varies depending on who advocates it.
It may even be necessary to introduce partial, or selective, borders to meet differing needs and to gain political agreement. Critically, a reminder is needed that avoiding a hard border is not the same as having no border.
The drafting of the Brexit treaty would be easiest if frictionless trade between the UK and the EU could remain as at present. That points to a sensible recommendation.
Supposing that the UK government sustains two conditions. First, the UK will leave the Single Market and the freedoms that gives to intra-EU-UK trade. Second, the UK government persists in the constitutional condition that the UK cannot have internal customs borders separating different parts of the UK. Now, solutions that avoid a hard border on this island are wanted.
There is little value in pointing out that there are already, in many differing forms, borders within the UK. Scotland has recently added new fiscal borders with the extended devolution of some income tax decision making. Rating of property, domestic and commercial, differs across local authority boundaries. Licensing for the sale of alcohol varies. A separate rate of corporation tax for Northern Ireland, as is proposed, is specifically designed to create a fiscal border between GB and NI as well as minimise or reduce the differences on this island.
Fluctuating exchange rates and national differences in VAT add to all-island complications.
The multiplicity of existing regulatory, fiscal, animal health or environmental rules means that the Brexit negotiations do not start with a seamless business environment. None of the existing man-made 'borders' is enforced with comprehensive compulsory inspection or declarations at the 'border'.
Sequential policing following notification of actions taken is adequate. Of course, it is not fool-proof. Cheating or smuggling at an acceptable, or nearly acceptable, level will take place.
In this context, the Brexit negotiators must prepare arrangements avoiding a hard border, but not pretending that in constitutional terms a border does not exist: it does.
Solving the operational problems is more demanding than it might appear at first glance. There is a range of interested parties. The arrangements for the Irish/Northern Irish border will be examined and tested by the UK government, the Irish government, the EU Commission on behalf of the collective interest of the EU-27, and then the Northern Ireland interests who, at present, lack a collective negotiating voice. There will also be active interests and lobbying by a number of others (such as the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) not excluding the parallel interest from Gibraltar and Spain. The Brexit question dealing with the Irish border is more than a small local problem.
From the Northern Ireland perspective, a significant suggestion is that cross-border trade N/S or S/N should be seamless and free of customs duty. To reduce any incentive to abuse duty free arrangements, the agreement should specify that it would apply only to goods whose country (or region) of origin (as assessed by normal customs conventions) was on the island of Ireland, N+S.
From the Irish government perspective a parallel deal could be agreed. However, would it be too generous to agree that Irish goods could use this concession to enter the GB market? Logically, the Irish government should ask the UK to give duty-free customs access for all goods of Irish origin and the UK might use this as a constructive special arrangement.
The trading principles need to be clearly stated: then the regulatory rules, using rules on authorised economic operators, should follow.
The end result should be duty-free trade in goods of local origin across this island and a generous regime for Irish goods going to GB. Crossing the Irish Sea would be incentivised, not deterred, by a trade border.