Farm Ireland

Saturday 23 February 2019

Comment: An 'electronic border' is just a border by another name

Downing on politics

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John Downing

John Downing

DAIRY farmers will be happy to note that the judges at the EU Court in Luxembourg have banned terms like ‘almond milk’. The court took the very sensible view that plant-based foods cannot use terms like ‘milk’, ‘butter’ and ‘cheese’ in their titles.

But what did Taoiseach Leo Varadkar get for dessert at his first EU leaders’ summit dinner the other day? Well, a thing called ‘almond milk ice-cream’.

It reminds me of an incident from the early 1980s, and a minor controversy when the sandwiches provided at a dairy-product promotion were found to have been ‘buttered’ with margarine. Such is the unpredictability of human behaviour at times.

Similarly, Brexit was not specifically on the agenda for our new Taoiseach’s first summit at the end of last week. But it was in the very air around Brussels and provides the backdrop for absolutely everything that is happening in the European Union right now.

For everyone in Irish farming and agribusiness, Brexit is all about avoiding a return of the border with the North and the imposition of tariffs on Ireland’s exports to all parts of the United Kingdom jurisdiction. But Theresa May has again insisted that Brexit means the UK will leave both the EU single market and the customs union.

When you ask people who know about international trade and the EU, there is unanimity that this has to mean a return of a ‘hard border’. The people leading both sides of the EU-UK Brexit negotiations, now in their second week, have recognised the issue is so crucial, key people on both sides have been put in charge.

On the British side, there is Oliver Robbins, the most senior official in the UK’s dedicated Brexit Department. On the EU side, Sabine Weyand, a German-born official who is deputy to the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Everyone is agreed that an outcome on the future of the border is not possible until a deal is struck on the terms under which the UK exits the single market and customs union. Best estimate by Brussels diplomats right now is that may not be until autumn 2018 at earliest.

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Britain’s Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, has already suggested that some sort of temporary deal is a likely result. History teaches us that ‘temporary solutions’ can persist for a very long time. But even that haphazard air about the matter suggests solutions are not evident right now.

There has been much talk about using new technology to do the work previously done from those shabby customs huts, stuffed full of tedious declaration forms, dotted all along the border until the early 1990s. There are many models to ensure checks and controls are done more efficiently.

But let’s keep in mind that a high-tech border is just a border by any other name. It still leaves big issues around the prospect of tariffs and increased costs to do business on this island and with the adjoining island.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has, very hearteningly, strongly stated that this ‘electronic border’ is not what the Irish Government wants. He says the North must be given some kind of special status, possibly maintaining a link into the EU customs union.

That in itself opens other cans of worms. It could for example mean that Northern traders might face tariffs on trade with the rest of the UK.

For now, the post-Brexit border has a problem for every imaginable solution. But Dublin has to maximise pressure in London, Brussels and other key EU capitals.

We’ll keep you posted...

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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