There has been a lot of talk about trying to avoid a “hard” border post-Brexit, and to preserve the open, free movement of people in the Common Travel Area. So I thought I’d look for some kind of scale of border “hardness”, which really means what degree of openness exists between two countries.

The World Economic Forum has come up with metrics for how disruptive borders are to travel and trade. As part of their annual Enabling Trade Report, the WEF recently included some metrics on borders:

  • Overall efficiency and transparency of border administration (1 to 7; 7=best)
  • Time to import (hours)
  • Time to export (hours)
  • Cost to import (US$)
  • Cost to export (US$)

The last four metrics are defined as: ‘Time/Cost associated with compliance with the economy’s customs regulations and with regulations relating to other inspections that are mandatory in order for the shipment to cross the economy’s border, as well as the time and cost for handling that takes place at its port or border.’

The good news is that the UK ranks 6th out of 136 countries with a score of 6.2 out of 7 for efficiency and transparency. Ireland is ranked 16th on 5.9/7. The USA is 17th (also 5.9) and Canada is 21st (5.8). China is ranked 52nd (4.9) and India is 75th (4.4).

The unsurprising news is that most EU countries add zero hours and zero costs to import/exports and are ranked joint 1st in all of these metrics, although their overall efficiency and transparency scores are variable.

The bad news is that Ireland is ranked 71st and adds 305 USD as an export cost and adds 253 USD as an import cost (ranked 55th). Ireland also adds 24 hours to imports and exports (ranked joint 50th in both).

The UK  scores better, but is still ranked joint 50th for adding 24 hours to time to export, and adds 3 hours to time to import (ranked 31st). The UK is ranked joint 1st with no cost to import, but 62nd in terms of cost of export (280 USD).

The above stats are from the WEF’s 2016 Global Enabling Trade Report (online database; look up “Border” under “Select index component”). A 2012 WEF report introduces their border metrics in more detail.

Of course there is much more to borders—especially Northern Ireland’s border—than just travel and trade.

Foreign Policy published a list of ‘The Worlds Most Dangerous Borders’ in 2011, which includes India-Pakistan, USA-Mexico, Cambodia-Thailand, Sudan-Southern Sudan, Israel-Syria and North Korea-South Korea. No surprises there really. These are the world’s really “hard” borders, where the issues are militarisation and conflict.

Then there are borders like the Turkey-Armenia border, which is quite simply closed (since 1993) as explained in this Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs blog post.

So what does this context mean for Northern Ireland?

Firstly, based on the WEF data, there are already time and money costs involved in import/export to the UK and Republic of Ireland. I don’t know what these are, but they may well relate to the fact that most goods arrive by air and sea, except for freight through the Channel Tunnel. They perhaps show that the European Single Market and Customs Union are already not as complete here as in continental Europe. They also point to challenges for the UK in being open for trade post-Brexit.

But the overall high level of efficiency and transparency achieved by both the UK and Ireland suggest that we have the expertise to set up and operate an efficient border system (and Common Travel Area), whatever new rules are put in place.

The Guardian have a long article on the border, where one of the points made is that ‘”The border never disappeared for oilmen”… customs officials visit him once a month to account for every litre of oil sold.’ In other words, behind the scenes of the currently “invisible” border an administrative system is in operation; one which includes various compromises like “Concession Roads” which were ‘a 1950s attempt to deal with the bewildering nature of the border: they were free of checkpoints and customs huts, but drivers using them “were obliged to keep their wheels turning until back in their own jurisdiction”.’

Beyond travel and trade, the post-Brexit border is not going to even remotely resemble any of the world’s “hard” or closed borders. The UK Government will be able to point to the lack of any re-militarisation of Northern Ireland’s border as evidence of no return to a “hard” border.

The real issue is that nationalists don’t want there to be any border at all. So even a “frictionless” border that makes the best use of ICT is going to be perceived as a negative imposition and a step backwards from the largely intangible border at present. Likewise, preservation of the Common Travel Area requires there to be effectively no border between Ireland and Britain either.

One issue is whether there is a need for a border to keep out unwelcome migrants. David Davis, the UK’s Brexit Secretary, made the observation that this issue was less about land borders and more about airports:

‘The prospect of people using the Irish route to get in the UK was “not a big issue”, he said, adding: “People say ‘Won’t Ireland be a route into Britain?’ There are 50 million people landing at British airports every year. It’s a very long-winded way to get into the UK to come via Dublin. “If you want to get in, you come as a tourist and stay. That’s what happens. I don’t see a circumstance where we are going to stop tourists at all. We are going to have loads of people coming in and out of Britain.”‘ (RTÉ report)

On the specifics of leaving the European Single Market and the Customs Union, the unknown is what kind of UK-EU agreement is going to be put in place to replace these. Exiting the EU may mean the border matters again in terms of mobile phone roaming charges (just abolished across the EU), the movement of livestock (including within the same farmer’s land on both sides of the border!), haulage and physical spot-checks on the contents of HGVs, etc.

The deep integration of the Republic of Ireland with the UK manifests in many ways. For example, the unease that the totally integrated British-Irish horse racing and stud industries may be negatively affected by Brexit: ‘Racing authorities in the UK and Ireland both agree that the seamless transfer of horses must be maintained after Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.’ (RTÉ Report).

It is too early to say on all of these things. But the likelihood is that individuals travelling across the border—or between Ireland and Britain—will notice few differences from today other than perhaps the requirement to bring a passport.

The “hardness” of the border really depends on how close to the European Single Market and Customs Union the UK remains, and whether or not any Common Travel Area deal allows Irish-UK trade on “softer” terms than the overall UK-EU agreement.