the battle to leave the EU, the situation between the Republic or
Ireland and Northern Ireland is emerging as a fault line in the
campaign. Specifically, because if we leave the EU the land border
between the newly-independent UK and the remains of the EU will also
become the external border to the EU.
With the prospect of border
checks there are fears that there will be customs posts on the border
and huge queues as trucks wait for clearance. But this is a fantasy,
whether we pursue a EEA Brexit solution
or not. It is wrong to assume that, because the UK would fall outside
the Customs Union, it necessarily follows that there would have to be
checks on goods crossing the border.
This perhaps harps back to the 19th Century origins of the Customs Union as the German Zollverein,
as a means of removing time-consuming and costly border checks. In that
case it certainly reflects the limited vision and the extraordinary
lack of knowledge displayed by EU supporters.
The myopia is
all the more remarkable as in 1949, eight years before the Treaty of
Rome which put the Zollverein into effect for the original six members
of the EEC, and organisation called the United Nations Economic
Commission for Europe (UNECE) launched a scheme to remove cross-border checks of goods in transit.
This system, known as the Transports Internationaux Routiers (TIR) was
so successful that it led to the negotiation of a TIR Convention which
was adopted in 1959 by the UNECE Inland Transport Committee. It entered
into force in 1960. It has since been updated and revised, currently
standing as the 1975 Convention, as amended, forever breaking the link
between customs control and border checks.
At the heart of the
system is a document known as the "TIR carnet", issued to registered
transport operators for each truck journey, listing the details of the
consignments. These have to be kept in secure load compartments and
sealed for the duration of the journeys. The specially marked vehicles
are given free passage across borders, with any tariffs or other taxes
becoming payable only when the final destination is reached.
Currently, thee million carnets are issued each year, equating to 10,000
trucks a day. Between them, they make 50,000 TIR border crossings
daily. And the system has since 2003 been undergoing simplification and
computerisation, to become the e-TIR system. As a 21st Century system, it is on its way to emerging as a fully electronic, paper-free operation.
As to Brexit, providing that the UK is prepared to re-enact the Community Customs Code
and other flanking legislation to which EU recognition of the TIR
system is tied, we could adopt the TIR system for Irish trans-border
This would allow for the worst case scenario,
where no trade agreement was reached with the EU. Goods would be subject
to varying tariffs and conformity inspections, but there would be
absolutely no need for customs posts or border checks.
Where unloading has to be supervised and inspections have to be carried out, there is already an established system
of what are known as "inland ports" or "inland clearance depots", where
checks can be carried out on goods before delivery. Often, these
coincide with break-bulk facilities and local distribution hubs,
allowing operations to be combined.
As for the Republic of
Ireland, a significant proportion of its trade is with other member
states. A significant volume transits through the UK and sometimes other
Member States before reaching their final destinations. For this, the
EU already has a system in place known as the Community Transit System (CTS), its equivalent of TIR.
By this mechanism, goods travelling between Ireland and other EU Members States can use the system,
passing through Northern Ireland, if necessary, and other parts of the
UK. There will be no customs checks or physical inspections.
The UK can, of course, go further than the bare minimum provision,
relying on TIR. If it joined EFTA, it could then take advantage of the Convention on a Common Transit Procedure,
as amended, which initially agreed in 1987. This again allows
cross-border movement without the need for border checks, bringing it
into the ambit of the EU's CTS. The UK currently recognises this for shipping goods between EU member states. It is used for goods travelling through Switzerland.
Within the EU, the UK integrates the harmonised procedure into our own systems, implementing a substantial body of EU legislation.
As part of the Article 50 settlement, it would also be open to the UK
to re-enact this body of law, and agree to continue the harmonised
system. This would have to be settled during the negotiations, but
should not present any undue problems, as long as we don't seek to
Failing all that, there is the possibility of signing off a special, one-off deal. This is exactly what happened in 2004 with Cyprus
to facilitate trade between the divided Greek and Turkish zones.
Similar in many respects to the TIR and CTS, this could as a last resort
provide a model for trade between the North and South.
all, therefore, the chances of a Brexit bringing chaos to Ireland, with
new customs posts and border checks, is vanishingly slight. And what
could be agreed for Ireland could also be applied to Scotland in the
event that it became independent. There is little possibility of
reactivating the modern equivalent of Hadrian's wall.
Scaremongering apart – for which the major culprit seems to be the UK
Government – there is little for Ireland to fear from Brexit, in terms
of any disruption to trade. The day after we leave, reporters on both
sides of the border will be scratching their heads, wondering what all
the fuss was about, as they find they have absolutely nothing to report.