Meanwhile on Brexit … the British fog may be about to lift a little

Don’t get too excited, but this really could be a significant week for achieving greater clarity on British government aims for Brexit. The fiercely   anti-Brexit FT reports that on an awayday at Chequers on Thursday, Theresa May will nail her ministers’ hands to  the table  (well, the FT didn’t quite put it that way) until they agree on a high level of alignment between the UK and EU rules.

Haven’t we heard something like that before? Oh yes, December’s joint Report on alignment between north and south between the UK and the EU as revised by the DUP and which the Irish Times fears may be denounced  for failing to reach EU legal standards. (Never mind. This is politics, baby).

There is a tiny snag though.  The PM will have to reconcile this aim with another for her Brexit minsters, of  “managed divergence “ over time to allow for new trading arrangements with countries  outside the EU.  How much divergence and when? The EU will want to know; maybe so will she.

This meeting is trailed on Tuesday in the second of three major ministerial “road to Brexit” speeches  by the Brexit secretary.  David Davis will offer assurances that Britain has no intention of becoming a low wage economy to undercut the EU. He will tell a Vienna audience that

We will continue our track record of meeting high standards after we leave the European Union. Now, I know that for one reason or another there are some people who have sought to question that these really are our intentions … these fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing – not history, not intention nor interest.

So that’s all good then!

The FTs intrepid Ireland correspondent Arthur Beesley filing from Enniskillen, has a fascinating piece on how – or even whether – a “smart border” would work. A former director of the World  Customs Union, a sister body of the WTO  has told Beesley that technology used on the border between Norway and Sweden could be adapted to keep the Irish border invisible and frictionless. Big firms would pre-notify shipments on line and camera would track lorry number plates.  Radio frequency ID chips would log driving licences without stopping. Others fear adapting the technology would take longer than we’ve got (however long that is )  to monitor  traffic of 40,000 vehicles day on 12 national roads. And anyway EU law may require checks on the border itself.

Such schemes , like” trusted trader,” aren’t new of course. They’re favoured by Leave unionists and friends like the economist Graham Gudgin, who has made probably the most confident appraisal of their viability. For good measure he threw in a defence of the DUP’s  Leave position in a Newsletter article last December, on the grounds of defending the Union. Never pass up a chance of  polarising a  technical debate with politics!

The reason why the Brexit Irish border problem has so difficult to solve is the same as the reason why the Northern Ireland problem has never really gone away. This is that nationalist Ireland will never give up on its ambitions for a united Ireland. It is using Brexit to further this aim.

Under the UK plan there will be no border posts and no stopping of individuals going about their business. Nor is it intended to stop lorries. Instead, companies can inform the government of their exports and imports and vehicle registration technology can track their movements. Modern technology has revolutionised the possibilities. On the US-Canada border, for instance, drones are used, as well as land based cameras, to track vehicles.

Nationalist ‘remainers’ have maliciously given the impression that what is involved is a return to the Troubles era with soldiers and observation towers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even today only 1% of consignments of imports into the Republic of Ireland are physically checked. There is no reason why this should change after Brexit, and any checks can be done away from the border itself.

One anti-Brexit charge is that smuggling will become commonplace. The reality is that it is already common. There are no tariffs to be paid at the border yet, but there are excise duties payable on alcohol, fuel and tobacco. These dues are currently collected without stopping any legitimate lorries at the border or anywhere else. The same can be true for tariffs, if necessary, after Brexit.

The UK government has also suggested that small traders will be exempt from duties. This may cause some problems because World Trade Organisation rules say that all suppliers from anywhere in the world must be treated the same, but some way will be found around this difficulty.

Proposals were also made to prevent traders from outside the UK sneaking goods into the EU via the Irish border. Most recently the UK government is proposing to devolve the setting regulations in agriculture and energy to Northern Ireland so that Northern Ireland can match EU regulations to maintain a smooth flow of exports.

I say again – good luck with that.




Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London