How post-Brexit border could go like clockwork - if we follow Swiss model
Tony Buckley's job is to build what will be the EU's only land frontier with the UK after Brexit, and he already knows exactly what he wants.
From his phone, he pulls out a picture of his "favourite border crossing". It's a scene of two small wooden sheds on either side of a small stone wall, on the road between Switzerland and France. "It's lovely, deserted," said Mr Buckley, assistant secretary & deputy director general of Customs at the Revenue Commissioners. "Not a customs man in sight."
Keeping open the Republic's 500km border is one of the crucial Brexit divorce terms. The EU says it needs to be advanced before talks can move on to any future relationship with Britain. London sees a common travel area as key to maintaining the peace process and says the issue could be an early flash point in the negotiations.
French farmers are already objecting to an open border because of concern cheaper non-European imports will infiltrate the EU via the border. UK Brexit Secretary David Davis said he expected the issue to be "the row of the summer" as he pushes to shape a new trade deal in conjunction with Britain's divorce proceedings.
"How on earth do you resolve the issue of the border with Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, unless you know what our general borders policy is, what the customs agreement is, what the free trade agreement is, whether you need to charge tariffs at the border or not?" Mr Davis said. An estimated 30,000 people a day now cross the border, sometimes even unaware that they are moving across one of the 300 crossings.
Any solution would have to allow companies and people in the North to move freely over the border into EU territory, but also without introducing new barriers to the rest of the UK. Increased restrictions between the North and Britain would be a "red line", said DUP leader Arlene Foster. The EU says it's looking for "flexible and imaginative" solutions, though chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned of the reality.
"We have a duty to speak the truth," Mr Barnier told the Dáil his month. "Customs controls are part of EU border management."
Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary went further this week. The idea of an open border is "pie in the sky". he told reporters on Wednesday. He said the EU's desire to restrict UK access to the single market demands controls. Much of the work will fall to Tony Buckley and his colleagues. For the career civil servant, the answer doesn't lie in traditional customs posts. "Border crossings don't have to be manned all the time, you don't have to block roads," he told a conference in Dublin last week. "It's like modern policing. It's not physical supervision all the time, it's electronic. Cars being stopped and searched is not going to happen. No one wants to be turning out a 40-foot refrigerated container in the middle of night at a border crossing."
The vision sketched out by Irish authorities involves setting so-called "trade-facilitation areas" 10 to 15km away from sensitive crossings, randomly checking about 2pc of traffic and using cross-border intelligence operations to target suspect activity. If that proves realistic, it could be a model for the rest of the EU as the bloc seeks to police its relationship with the UK, Mr Buckley said. Options depend on what is agreed, he said.
His coveted Franco-Swiss crossing, for example, rests on a vast network of accords between the EU and Switzerland that allow the frontier to stay open. Finally, the absence of any checkpoints throws open the question of how the UK would regain control of its frontiers after Brexit - one of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's main pledges since last year's referendum.
"I suspect we will have a very smooth, serene system," said Mr Buckley. "But under the water, the legs will have to paddle furiously to make it work."