Belfast Telegraph

Michael Wilson: Why the reality of Brexit is not the stuff of comedy like Soft Border Patrol, but of farce... or even tragedy

Swiss resident Michael Wilson crosses an EU/non-EU frontier on a daily basis and it's anything but frictionless

A scene from Soft Border Patrol
A scene from Soft Border Patrol

By Michael Wilson

In the BBC Northern Ireland comedy series Soft Border Patrol, the force aims to soften the border in a post-Brexit world. In reality, crossing the border, or trying to cross the border, post-Brexit could be a whole lot more of a challenge.

Due to the inescapable fact that Northern Ireland has the only UK land border with the European Union, it's the point where the EU requires its core principles are preserved.

Where the EU stops, so do the rules, regulations, treaties and agreements that allow the free passage of goods, services and people.

In Soft Border Patrol, the idea is to know when you are crossing the border, to help with crossing the border and to make it clear that the border exists when and where it's not obvious.

In one episode, the patrol paints a white line on a plank placed across a stream and writes 'UK' and 'EU' in correction fluid either side.

But, in reality, national borders are far more obvious. After 15 years living on the island of Ireland, both north and south, my family moved to Switzerland two years ago - one of the few countries with a land border with the EU, in fact almost totally landlocked by the EU.

So, experiencing an EU/non-EU border first hand and on a daily basis has been fascinating. It's also been enlightening to see how British politicians and the pro-Brexit camp have come and visited and reported back to the UK audience, especially those in Northern Ireland, their version of how the border operates. Sadly, many of the reports I have seen and read bear no resemblance to the reality of day-to-day living on the border between Switzerland and the EU.

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Switzerland is in the Schengen travel zone, meaning there is no need for passport checks and the import and tariff regulations on goods are largely aligned with those of the EU.

However, it is not in the customs union and, importantly, its VAT regime is not aligned and this means that border checks are required.

The border is part of everyday life here and works simply.

The Swiss/EU border is non-contentious politically but it is far from straightforward
The Swiss/EU border is non-contentious politically but it is far from straightforward

My wife works in the Basel area. She parks the car in France (where land prices are cheaper, so her business built the staff car-park there) and walks 400 metres to her office in Switzerland.

If traffic is bad, she can take a shortcut through Germany. So, a 50-minute commute could go Switzerland/ Germany/ Switzerland/ France/ Switzerland in terms of countries travelled through.

Not once does she have to show a passport - ever.

But, to be clear, there is a hard border - border posts, border guards, armed police, often armed military, dogs, very regular spot-checks, speed bumps and chicanes.

You are slowed down, you are monitored.

As a car driver, it's usually a brief slowing down and a quick wave through, but at busy times it can take 30 minutes to cross the border.

It is not like the frictionless, invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Politicians have visited the border and called is seamless and simple - it's anything but.

Due to far cheaper prices, we shop in Germany but can only bring back limited alcohol, 1kg of meat and 1kg of dairy on any trip, otherwise we pay customs duty.

There are spot-checks both on and away from the border - often random. The fines are punitive if you (even accidentally and by a minor degree) digress from the rules. And I'm only importing the €200 weekly shop.

Freight is more closely monitored. Trucks cannot cross the border out of hours, or at weekends. They are open to inspection and the lines of vehicles waiting to cross the border can stretch for kilometres.

There have been many rehearsals for Operation Stack in Kent, should there be customs delays cross the Channel, but there has been no such contingency planning for any delays on the island of Ireland.

The Swiss Federal Customs Administration will tell you it has the latest technology and also assists by having much of the paperwork being done away from the borders. Even so, they admit delays can be up to four hours for freight.

So much for frictionless, so much for no infrastructure and so much for "we will find a technical solution" hailed by many but still to be delivered in practice.

In terms of technical solutions, last year the Swiss began an IT transformation programme to harmonise, digitise and simplify the tax and duty-collection process. They hope to have it fully operational by 2028.

So, even though the Swiss/EU border is non-contentious politically, even though they have decades of experience, even though their teams are well practised in tax and duty collection, it will take 10 years to fully implement the latest technology. And there will still be a hard border with infrastructure.

Miraculously, when British politicians visit, it's seamless and that's what's regularly reported on the news, to parliamentary committees and fed to voters.

Authorities the world over want to paint the best picture of their systems, so when the VIP visitors from the United Kingdom arrive with the cameras and reporters, the queues disappear, they meet the officials, not the frontline staff, and hear what the process should be, not the reality.

In the two years we have been in Switzerland, we have become used to the border: the rules, the delays. It's as part of everyday life as bus lanes in Belfast.

There is one key difference: it's centuries since this border was in question. There is no security threat - other than the low-level concern across the whole of Europe.

There is also one fundamental issue that is also often not discussed: the simple scale of the border and the resources required to patrol international boundaries.

Switzerland has around 80 border crossings with the EU (and 13 with Liechtenstein). Switzerland employs more than 20,000 customs officers. The surrounding EU states - Italy, Austria, Germany and France - employ countless more.

The EU recently approved an additional 10,000 officers to protect the external borders of the bloc.

It is estimated there are around 300 crossings between Ireland and the North. To date, nothing has been done to address the customs disparity (apart from words).

Recently, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been told by the Government it can have 300 more officers post-Brexit. It wants double that.

The Irish Revenue Commissioners, the EU itself and the British Chambers of Commerce all accept that, for certain checks, such as livestock, to be done away from the border would be a serious deviation from standard practice anywhere in the world.

If the UK crashes out with no-deal, or even with a deal yet to be defined, the solutions and reality about the border issue may not become the stuff of comedy like Soft Border Patrol, but more like a farce, or tragedy.

For many, the issue of the border is not a technical, or legal, issue; it's not even a logistical obstacle for people and business. It's an emotional barrier bringing back generations of ingrained views of history and conflict.

Michael Wilson has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He has held senior roles at Sky News, Five News and ITV. Until 2017, he had been managing director at UTV. He currently lives in Switzerland. A longer version of this article appears in Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion? edited by John Mair and Steve McCabe with Neil Fowler and Leslie Budd, published by Bite Sized Books and available now from Amazon

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