Chief EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is milking the Irish border issue, although ‘milking’ is scarcely the right word, ‘inflaming’ would be more appropriate. Lord Patten, one of the appeasers in the upper House, recently stated that a clean Brexit would result in a hard border in Ireland which was like carrying a can of petrol in one hand and a box of matches in the other. He reminded us that customs officers were once targets of IRA terrorists, implying that the Troubles would resume if the UK left the Customs Union (CU). Mere correlation is never sufficient evidence in an argument, there needs to be a causal link too, and anyway this is only a partial correlation.
Customs officers were certainly attacked during the Troubles, as were other obvious representatives of British authority, especially in the police and army. However the killing didn’t stop when both countries became members of the CU and there was no longer a need for a customs border. The IRA weren’t killing the officers because they hated paying customs duties, they were killing for the cause of a united Ireland as they had been doing since 1922; Irish nationalists had also carried out assassinations to gain independence before Home Rule was finally achieved for the counties now part of Eire. The EU has never had any relevance to the struggle, nor to the current peace, until now. Now it is Barnier’s team carrying the petrol and matches to aid the fight against UK independence. They are vandals and hooligans; if not terrorists themselves they are willing to provoke others.
David Trimble, a key figure in the Good Friday negotiations, told BBC Radio’s ‘Today’ programme (8th May) that different customs rates were not a problem. He said technology was available for trucks that could track consignments, if it hasn’t been used elsewhere yet that is because it hasn’t been needed as it is in this case. Also small traders can be excused as, effectively, they always used to be, courtesy of the Irish smuggling tradition .
Fraternity is not in Barnier’s Brexit bag, nor are liberty or freedom; he embodies the worst of Gallic hypocrisy and hauteur. Mr Trimble advised that the UK government should lay out all the suggestions and compromises it has offered or conceded so far. It should then ask Brussels openly what steps it had or would make towards reaching an agreement when so far it has not moved a millimetre.
Far from the claims of the anti-Brexit brigade, goods and people can cross borders smoothly after we leave the CU even if Brussels doesn’t dictate the future. As the ex-Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, pointed out the city’s congestion charge uses similar technology to that proposed for Ireland; they help smooth crossings at other borders where the parties want cooperation, like Switzerland – EU, Sweden – Norway and USA – Canada. The World Bank has reviewed 19 countries across the globe and found that, on average, only 2% of goods are physically checked at borders, with border control based mainly on intelligence.
All of these modern borders are facilitated by technology, with pre-notification of what goods are being shipped. Brussels and Barnier appear to want a watertight Irish border (impossible) rather than a water-resistant one as used to suffice (achievable); the Irish treat the border lightly even now where different taxes or rules apply in the two nations. In context this is anyway a small issue, the amount of trade between Northern Ireland and Eire is a fraction of that between the Province and Britain or between the Republic and Britain (see Smart Border report).
The whole customs debate is hugely exaggerated in this wearying debate. In a wider context documentary checks of non-EU goods are carried out on less than 3% of imports (compared to less than 1% of lorries arriving at Dover or through the Channel Tunnel). Britain trades proportionately more with the Rest of the World (RoW) than other EU members and successfully too – we have a positive trade balance with RoW despite tariffs.
Those determined to reverse Brexit are doing a great job of undermining the UK’s negotiating position so ensuring we only get offered rotten deals. It is hard to understand how Patten and his cohorts can tolerate this and many other aggressive and unjustifiable actions by the EU (such as the threats to our participation in the Galileo project for example). They imperil our future peace and prosperity, at the core of their duty as politicians and patriots.