How a Photo of a Swiss Border Post Might Influence Brexit Talks

  • Irish official dreams of ‘deserted’ customs posts after Brexit
  • Dealing with Irish border question is key to divorce talks

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Tony Buckley’s job is to build what will be the European Union’s only land frontier with the U.K. after Brexit, and he already knows exactly what he wants.

From his phone, the Irishman pulls out a picture of his “favorite border crossing.” It’s a bucolic scene, two small wooden sheds on either side of a low-slung stone wall, surrounded by forest, perched on the road between Switzerland and France. “It’s lovely, deserted,” said Buckley, a senior official at Ireland’s tax authority. “Not a customs man in sight.”

Keeping open the Republic of Ireland’s 310-mile (500-kilometer) border with the U.K. province of Northern Ireland 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. The government in London sees a common travel area as key to maintaining peace on the divided island 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 U.K. border. Brexit Secretary David Davis told broadcaster ITV 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?” Davis said.

Open Access

The U.K. and Ireland joined the EU together in 1973 at a time when sectarian violence and tit-for-tat bombings were escalating in Northern Ireland. Border controls largely melted away in the 1990s as both economies were part of the single market and the Good Friday Agreement led to a cessation of hostilities between mainly Catholic republicans fighting for a united Ireland and Protestant unionists loyal to the U.K.

An estimated 30,000 people a day now cross the border, sometimes even unaware that they are moving across one of the 300 crossings along the frontier.

Any solution would have to allow companies and people in Northern Ireland to move freely over the Irish border into EU territory, but also without introducing new barriers to the rest of the U.K. Increased restrictions between Northern Ireland and the mainland would be a “red line,” said Arlene Foster, who leads the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland.

A disused customs control point near Dundalk.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

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,” Barnier, who as commissioner for regional policy from 1999 to 2004 oversaw the PEACE program that promoted reconciliation in the region, told the Irish parliament this month. “Customs controls are part of EU border management.”

The head of Dublin-based airline Ryanair Holdings Plc went further this week. The idea of an open border is “pie in the sky,” Michael O’Leary told reporters on Wednesday. He said that the EU’s desire to restrict U.K. access to the single market demands controls.

‘Modern Policing’

Tony Buckley in Dublin.

Photographer: Paul Sherwood

Much of the work will fall to Buckley and his colleagues based in Dublin Castle, formerly the seat of the U.K’s rule of Ireland before independence in 1922. For career civil servant Buckley, 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 15 kilometers away from sensitive crossings, randomly checking about 2 percent 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 U.K., Buckley said. Options depend on what is agreed, he said.

Buckley’s 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 U.K. 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 Buckley. “But under the water, the legs will have to paddle furiously to make it work.”

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