With free trade, the Irish border is an issue for the EU, not the UK

Graeme Leach
Protests As The British Prime Minister Triggers Article 50
Source: Getty

The famous line from the Carry On film, “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”, could have been written for the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland border issue.

We are told this is a problem with no solution, that it will see us crashing out of the EU with no deal, or that the DUP won’t play ball, leading to the end of the party’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives.

The problem is seen as unfathomable because the solution has to deliver so much: no membership of the Single Market or Customs Union, no physical border crossings, and no red line through the Irish Sea. And just for good measure, it has to avoid the threat of a veto by the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU.

All of this can be addressed in one fell swoop. If the UK chose to pursue genuine free trade post-Brexit, the border issue would become an ex-problem. If Britain decided to exercise its sovereign power and implement zero tariff and non-tariff barriers to imports, the border issue would disappear like an early morning mist over County Down.

The key point is that a genuine free trade solution does tick all the boxes. The UK would be outside the Single Market and Customs Union, the DUP would be happy because there would be equivalence with the rest of the UK, and there would be no physical border presence to threaten the peace settled by the Good Friday Agreement.

Job done? Not quite. In this scenario, the entire problem would move from London to Dublin and Brussels.

The EU and the Irish government would have to explain why they might oppose a solution which meant that imports into Northern Ireland could pass tariff-free into the Republic, thereby avoiding the EU Common External Tariff.

Cheaper North American agricultural products could come into the UK tariff-free and then hop over the border into Ireland – again, with no tariffs.

The MEP Daniel Hannan has captured the Irish dilemma with a little humour:

Dublin: “You mustn’t put up a border.”
London: “Fair enough: we won’t.”
Dublin: “Neither must we.”
London: “That’s your call.”
Dublin: “Why are you being so difficult?”

When politicians tell you there is no alternative but to keep the Single Market and Customs Union for the whole UK, what they are really saying is that they cannot risk the consequences of the UK choosing genuine free trade, and seeing that system sitting bang next door to the protectionist fortress of the Common External Tariff in Ireland.

What a contrast that would be.

In the twenty-first century, there is no need whatsoever for a physical border presence.

Michael Burrage (my colleague in Economists for Free Trade) has pointed out that the chief Executive of HMRC – in evidence to seven select committees, no less – has asserted that whatever happens, there won’t be any circumstances, nor any need, for physical infrastructure, at any point along the border. The border will remain frictionless and invisible.

That is pretty emphatic. Reinforcing this message, Thompson pointed out that, at present, only 0.5 per cent of non-EU imports to the UK are physically inspected.

To reiterate, if the government, against all indications, were to support unilateral free trade, the Irish border issue and the entire post-Brexit trading arrangements problem would be sorted.

The Irish border, handled properly, is a problem for the EU, and not the UK.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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