Does customs control need to be taxing post Brexit?

Disclaimer: Nothing in this blog represents the views of my employer. These are personal comments. For information, the CSP position supports continued rights to live, work and learn in the UK for European national resident here after Brexit, and the same for British physios working in the EU. The CSP has particular concerns about healthcare across the Island of Ireland post Brexit, so support the continuation of the Common Travel Area.

There has been a lot of noise from both the British Government and EU about the form customs controls might take after Brexit, and in particular, the Irish border arrangements. This week the Commission said that invisible borders were “a fantasy” whilst the British Government said it wanted “a frictionless” border.

I worked for the UK Border Agency at board level in the past. I do not claim to be an expert on customs controls but it did give me an insight into the range of customs, immigration and security solutions used to manage the flows of people and goods between countries. I was also lucky enough to spend time with Border Force staff in Northern Ireland who told me about the “old days”, pre single market. So, I have a little knowledge I can share.

The first thing to say is that even within the single market now, there are border controls between the EU (largely excluding Ireland) and the UK. Immigration and some customs controls are in place despite free movement and the single market. That is why you are still passport checked when you come back from a holiday in Spain. That is why you see lorries being searched as you come off your ferry in Dover. The media speculation over the last few weeks seems to be based on the idea that that we have totally open border now. We do not. So we are not talking necessarily about introducing extra border controls. The unknowns will be what extra customs and immigration checks the U.K. might want, or have to apply post Brexit.

Behind the rhetoric is a very basic issue; what could customs, immigration and security controls look like in the future? I guess most people think of the customers and immigration checks at ports and airports as “the border”. The physical lining up of vehicles or people to be checked is probably what you are thinking of when the media start talking about a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland for example.

However, the picture you may have ignores the reality that there are already a wide range of alternatives border management solutions used across the world, including in the U.K. and EU. Some retain physical checks, but not at the actual border, some are virtual and we also have de facto open borders most of the time in most places.

It is important to realise that not all customs and immigration controls are physically at the border. For example, anyone who has used the Euro Tunnel or Eurostar will know that the UK and France operate “juxtaposed” controls on some transport routes. By mutual agreement, U.K. Border Force can check people and vehicles before they reach the UK Border and PAF, the French border police, check passengers at St Pancras station in London. There are similar international arrangements allowing customs and security checks on goods from some ports by foreign officials. This helps speed transit whilst maintaining security. There is nothing to stop the UK and EU agreeing to allow one another to conduct customs or immigration checks in one another’s territories.

A second option would be a reciprocal agreement to operate one another’s customes and/or immigration controls on one another’s behalf. For example, the EU and UK might agree that EU bound goods entering the Port of Belfast are customers cleared to EU rules  by the UK Border Force on their behalf. Similarly, the Irish Customs Service could clear U.K. bound goods transiting via Shannon Airport.

A third option is the use of e-borders. Using electronic checks is already fairly common. The UK, Spain and some other countries already use advanced passenger data to pre-check passengers against immigration and security databases. Airlines are required to deny boarding to people who are not acceptable to the relevant national authorities. This is already a first line of border control.

Customs checks have long included review of documents in advance of clearance. There has been an option for UK ministers to agree to make more use of digital checks for several years, but the perceived political risks have so far prevented this being fully utilised.

What electronic checks can’t do is see if there are people hiding in the back of a lorry or undeclared goods in a container. Physical checks, based on intelligence, will always need to be used to back up electronic controls. However, they are used now, so this would be no different from the existing situation within the single market.

Checks in ports are used because the border is the second line of defence against bad people and dangerous goods. However, in-country checks are also used. HMRC and Home Office Immigration Enforcement operate away from the border to enforce customs and immigration rules. This will not change post Brexit. There is a political choice to make about whether to rely more on in-country checks. Reliance on enforcement away from the border would allow light touch controls at the border. The downside is that it is often harder to enforce controls once people and goods have entered the country.

The final element that could be used to keep the border frictionless, especially in Ireland, is to acknowledge a reality, which politicians do not usually like to accept. No border is controllable. Not even North Korea has successfully managed to totally close their borders.

Whilst border controls operate at main ports and airports in the U.K. and EU most small ports and the land border are effectively uncontrolled. The simplest solution for the Irish / U.K. land border might simply be to accept it will be an unmarked and unregulated border. As in the pre-single market days, there will be huge scope for smuggling and tax fraud across the border but these risks can be managed in other ways if we want to.

So the technicalities around customs and other border controls are not actually insurmountable problems. The good folk of UK Border Force, HMRC and their EU colleagues can find ways to manage a frictionless border if that is what they are asked to do. Focussing on what sort of border we will have is just a distraction to allow both sides in the negotiations to avoid addressing the substantive issues. Which goods and people are able to move and how much they pay for the privilege, not how you then manage the movement, is what we need politicians to focus on.

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