Tuesday 10 December 2019

Look to Sweden and Norway for how to handle our border controls after Brexit

'It’s an awful lot easier for an Irish citizen to enter the British capital – at the moment – than it is for an Irish citizen to return to Ireland via the Irish capital. Ironic.' Stock photo
'It’s an awful lot easier for an Irish citizen to enter the British capital – at the moment – than it is for an Irish citizen to return to Ireland via the Irish capital. Ironic.' Stock photo
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Every month I experience the "Common Travel Area" between Britain and Ireland which is now - rightly - upheld as such a necessary part of trade and economic relations.

That is, I take a monthly flight from a London airport to Dublin: but the openness of the travel area is a lot more evident at the London end than it is at the Dublin end of my journey.

When I arrive in Dublin, I queue up with all the other citizens from 28 EU countries and submissively wait my turn to go through the barriers staffed by gardaí.

Sometimes men and women acting as visitor 'sherpas' usher us along the waiting line, ensuring we behave in an orderly fashion. It's quiet enough at this time of the year, but it will soon be crowded and busy again.

When I return to London City Airport, I just sail through without any formalities whatsoever. Nobody asks me for my passport at London City. There are no formalities.

I just go straight through to the awaiting train at Docklands Light Railway.

So it's an awful lot easier for an Irish citizen to enter the British capital - at the moment - than it is for an Irish citizen to return to Ireland via the Irish capital. Ironic.

Presumably this will change after Brexit, but I imagine that the change will simply involve London becoming more like Dublin in terms of police checks.

Although by the time Brexit is implemented, my hope is that the European Union will have come to its senses, stop being so rigid about its sacred dogmas, and accept that Ireland and Britain need a special bi-lateral relationship. And a common travel area, based on common sense, can continue.

Granted, there are worries about the Border between the North and the Republic of Ireland.

As Garrett Carr illustrates in a new topographical book about the Border, 'The Rule of the Land', it is an especially meandering frontier of 499 kilometres, and sometimes you don't know which jurisdiction you're in until you spot a red letter box or a highway sign in Irish (and in kilometres).

How can it be controlled and patrolled, once it becomes the United Kingdom's only land frontier with a European Union country?

But is this such an insoluble problem?

Switzerland and Norway are two non-EU countries that share borders with EU countries, and things seem to be managed perfectly smoothly.

Basel in Switzerland has a bridge which is said to divide northern Europe from southern Europe, and the people of Basel come and go with consummate ease to nearby France and Germany. Basel Airport is actually located in France, so that if you're going into non-EU Switzerland you're landing in France.

The airport itself is named Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, alluding to the fact that it serves three countries. If Basel can operate successfully straddling three countries, surely Belleek can with two?

Norway's border with Sweden is over 1,600km long, much of it running through mountainous and afforested regions.

Sweden is in the EU and Norway is not, and so far their mutual border is managed via occasional spot checks.

Norway also has a border with Finland - again, an EU country - which is 736km.

Both countries are part of the Schengen Area and so far, again, there don't seem to be any concerns in managing it.

More problematic, possibly, is Norway's border with Russia - a mere 195km: over the past year the authorities have been erecting a fence to control the number of refugees who may travel up through the Urals - but it's not popular with the locals, who like to have an easy trading and shopkeeping relationship across the frontier. (Scandinavian countries levy fierce taxes on alcohol, which, naturally, encourages the Scandis to nip over to Russia to purchase their vodka.)

Even in the worst-case scenario of a hard Brexit, trade and travel across European frontiers can surely be organised in a sensible way.

Are Sinn Féin's dire warnings of a "return to the Troubles" if the Border between the North and the Republic of Ireland were to be revived a political gambit - or even a threat?

If Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, France, Germany and Italy can manage to run efficient, but not heavy-handed border controls between EU and non-EU land frontiers, so can Ireland.

There are, to be sure, specific problems of geography.

Irish truckies, at present, usually have to drive through England and Wales when they are transporting merchandise between Ireland and Continental Europe, and nobody has yet figured out whether there will be a tariff to pay on entering and exiting the UK, or whether Irish lorries can somehow be sealed in travelling from one EU country to another.

But clever civil servants and negotiators should be able to find a solution to this: after all, nobody wants to disincentivise trade (even if the voters around the port of Dover in Kent heartily wish there were fewer juggernaut lorries on their roads).

But maybe this is just the incentive needed to boost the port of Rosslare - which has already suffered from the devaluation of Sterling - and increase its direct links with Continental Europe?

But a common trading area between Ireland and the United Kingdom must, clearly, continue, and if there's a will, a way will be found.

In the meantime, I'll be reflecting when next passing through the "hard border" at Dublin Airport that the constabulary might, perhaps, have been more vigilant in investigating alleged migrant smuggling among the airport officials, and perhaps less exercised about law-abiding Irish citizens re-entering their own country?

Irish Independent

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