Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
This isn’t about the border. It never was. Rather, it’s about the extent to which the UK can diverge from the EU’s regulatory standards.
There is – this can’t be stated too often – no need for a physical frontier on the island of Ireland. The Common Travel Area has existed since 1923. It covers both EU members (Ireland and the UK) and non-members (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man). As for different customs rates, they will no more necessitate frontier checks than do different VAT and alcohol duties today. Companies will simply present their customs declarations as they now present their tax declarations.
In many places, you can cross between Switzerland and the EU without noticing, and such minimal infrastructure as exists is mainly about making sure that foreign drivers have Swiss road discs. In any case, Britain has already promised not to put up border posts on its side of the line whatever the outcome of the talks.
What, then, is the fuss about? Why has what ought to have been a technical discussion about number-plate recognition cameras and licensing for cross-border traders instead become a block to an amicable UK-EU settlement?
Well, look at it from the point of view of the various actors. For London, it’s a simple question of using modern technology instead of the legacy infrastructure of physical checks – a process that is unfolding all over the world. For Dublin, which understandably regards the whole Brexit process as a thundering nuisance, it’s an opportunity to ease Northern Ireland a little bit further out of the UK, by ensuring that at least some of its technical standards are in effect determined by the EU and the Irish Republic. For Brussels, it’s a chance to keep the UK within the EU’s regulatory orbit in perpetuity.
There are different opinions about how much Britain should use Brexit to pursue its own regulatory trajectory. Some want us to be like Norway, replicating Brussels standards through bilateral deals and domestic legislation, albeit without the direct effect of EU law and outside the customs union. Others want us to be like New Zealand, using Brexit to gain a competitive advantage over our neighbours. Both are legitimate points of view. Both would leave us better off than we are as full members. So, indeed, would an intermediate point between the two.
Determining where we want to diverge and where we don’t is a critical issue, which will vary sector by sector. There are some areas where we would be unambiguously better off without the EU’s rules: the art market for example. There are others where economies of scale and proximity to a large market make it sensible for us to be part of the existing system: aviation, say. But the worst possible way to approach this issue is through the prism of the Irish border.
The UK wants to have a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU that would make a land border even more obviously unnecessary. The EU’s ideal is to keep the UK where it is now, but without representation in Brussels: in other words, still subject to EU regulations, but with no ability to veto them.
Plainly this outcome would be the worst of all worlds for Britain. Which is why it is critical that we do not make concessions now, notionally over a technical border question, that prejudice that final outcome.
For example, a big advantage of Brexit is the ability to buy food at world prices rather than under the Common Agricultural Policy. Understandably, the Irish don’t much like this prospect: two thirds of their beef exports go to the UK, and would be threatened by admitting produce from the US, Australia and Argentina. So, under the guise of avoiding border checks, Dublin can hardly be blamed for trying to insert conditions about regulatory convergence that would prohibit the UK from buying at world prices – by, for example, keeping the EU’s protectionist ban on the hormones that exist in the rest of the world’s herds. (Every public health body, by the way, as well as the WTO, has declared that the ban has no scientific basis. The hormone in question is harmless and, in any case, there is less of it in a kilogram of beef than in a single egg.)
The underlying problem is a lack of vision. It is hard to avoid the impression that Brexit is being undertaken in a spirit of damage limitation rather than a spirit of opportunity. Policy is being determined by officials and politicians who, having opposed Brexit, now have little sense of where to go with it. We seem reactive, unable to set out a positive agenda of our own.
We can aim for EFTA, working as closely as possible with our European allies. Or we can aim for Singapore: a low-tax entrepôt flourishing next to an over-regulated federation. A case can be made for either. But no case can be made for failing to decide.