Dr. Kieran Mullan works in health policy. He was the Conservative candidate for Wolverhampton South East in 2017 and Birmingham Hodge Hill in 2015.
I think there is an incredible amount of pessimism about our ability to achieve a good Brexit deal with the EU. Often, even firm positive statements from the EU, supporting UK proposals, are ignored in favour of talking down what is achievable. Critics are also quick to pick apart any possible solution in a way that seemingly ignores the failures of how the EU runs at present.
The narrative surrounding the Irish Border issue is a good example. As the son of a Northern Irish immigrant, who was sent to England by his mother to escape the troubles, Ireland is the one area of Brexit that gives me pause. There is a sensible consensus that the return of a hard border would be a retrograde step that would risk stoking trouble. Border checkpoints were a focus of terrorist activity as clear symbols of a divided Ireland.
It has been suggested that without a hard border effective border control will be impossible. But even with the challenge Ireland presents, the obstacles are being exaggerated and an impression given that border control across the EU is perfect and therefore our approach post-Brexit needs to be as well.
At the moment, the movement of people between Ireland and Northern Ireland is governed by the Common Travel Area (CTA) which gives even more freedom and mutually recognised rights than EU freedom of movement. For goods, as there is a free market there is no need for a hard border to check what is coming in and out to ensure the correct duties are being paid.
In fact, the Government has made some sensible initial proposals. On goods, they want to allow small and medium-sized companies the freedom to import and export without customs regulations applying and then run a scheme of licensed importers and exporters for bigger business where they prove they pay any duties due. This is just the kind of deregulating idea we should be pushing post-Brexit.
Apparently, it is silly to trust companies to make accurate declarations, and so a licensing scheme won’t work. But we don’t check everything that comes through our existing non-EU hard border points because we know in the vast majority of circumstances declarations on packaging will be accurate. We have a system to check a sample so it isn’t a ‘free for all’. We strike a reasonable balance.
It is ironic that Remainers who back a political project predicated on the trade-off between border control and social and economic harmony are so quick to attack the UK as it aims to make a similar compromise. Make no mistake, a relative lack of border controls has negative consequences across the EU. The EU has needed to launch a major strategy to combat the smuggling of tobacco products, for example. They arrive in Eastern Europe from the likes of Russia and Belarus and are then smuggled throughout Europe with apparent ease. The profits are funding organised crime to the tune of £8 billion a year. People trafficking, too, is a problem the Prime Minister focused on during her time as Home Secretary. Counterfeit drugs is another growing industry.
Does the EU propose reintroducing strict border controls as the answer? No. And clearly these issues weren’t a priority for those voting Remain, but apparently imperfect boarder control between Ireland and Northern Ireland is now a reason to oppose a proper Brexit. For counterfeit drugs, the EU is proposing sophisticated supply chain tracking. This is exactly the kind of thing rubbished by Remainers when it was raised as a potential solution to the Irish border challenge.
I think the initial government proposals do need to be further developed. There need to be some checks of what is being imported and exported to minimise the risk of either Northern Ireland or Ireland being used to channel goods into the UK or EU from elsewhere. But instead of bringing goods to border control, let’s take border control to the goods.
Companies could be required to register planned imports and exports, including the addresses of the points of origin and destination, and do so with sufficient notice to allow inspections to take place where those goods are being stored, either before or after movement. They would also need to have the necessary registration documents accompanying goods that are moved, so that at the same time, inspectors could conduct random inspections of goods being transported to look for people ignoring the system. This would not need to be at a hard checkpoint. It can be intelligence-led, with visits to storage yards or on major highways around the border. As mentioned above, you don’t have to check everything, just as not everything is checked that goes through hard borders anywhere in the world. It is about proportionality. Yes this approach might be less efficient and effective than a hard border, but it could potentially be effective and efficient enough to constitute a worthwhile trade-off for the benefits of not having a hard border.
On people, the UK simply wants to maintain the CTA. Critics argue that there is no way the EU would allow for ‘special treatment’ in Ireland if the rest of the EU is subject to restrictions. In fact, the EU has already said in its negotiating guidelines that it recognises the legality of the CTA as a local arrangement between the UK and Ireland. But, as that doesn’t fit the pessimistic narrative, it is ignored. Yes, it might create immigration irregularities. It already does – the UK and Ireland have different visa requirements for some non-EU countries. The sky hasn’t fallen in. We just accept it isn’t perfect and get on with it.
If we are not ambitious and don’t use Brexit to propose new and innovative ways of working, then we are not going to grasp all the opportunities Brexit presents. If we are creative in our approach, the Irish border and all the other challenges of Brexit can be solved. As we are released from the bureaucratic constraints of the EU, we might find approaches that are not only good enough, but better than the ones used before. Most importantly, we must keep reminding the critics that the current state of affairs in areas like border control is not perfect. The UK should not be expected to implement Brexit solutions that greatly surpass standards that the EU itself has not been able to achieve.