A few years after the Good Friday Agreement, I found myself driving along the Irish border. Now, as a non-reconstructed Englishman would expect to find in Ireland, the road snaked drunkenly in and out of each of the United Kingdom and Republic of Eire (fortunately no other countries were involved, probably because there was a sea in between), without any respect for the political map.
I got to thinking about that drive the other day, when I noticed that Israel’s new-improved Free Trade Agreement with Canada came into force on Sunday. The last time I checked, Israel didn’t have a border with Canada, but the United Kingdom – for better or for worse – has a border with the Irish Republic. And I know what it looks like. It doesn’t look like anything. They don’t even have a tourist attraction like Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie to cause an obstruction to passing motorists.
The only way goods are going to make it into Israel from Canada is via air, sea or someone else’s border. And the Customs Authority must be licking its rubber stamp, because, far from reducing necessary bureaucracy, free trade agreements – that do away with tariffs (sort of) – create more bureaucracy. Whereas an import from a country governed by WTO rules just needs a quick open of the box to see that what is inside is what they said was inside, under an FTA they have to know what is inside what is inside. ‘Rules of Origin’ stop the good citizens of Bunga-Bunga just changing the packaging and passing their dubious products for Canadian or, even, Canadien.
The British, on the other hand, are currently in a customs union with the Irish, albeit through no fault of their own having been admitted together with them to the EEC in 1973. Customs unions are much more efficient than FTAs because everybody in the union adheres to a common external tariff system – ie all the foreigners (for the purpose of this discussion – and this discussion alone – the French and Germans are not foreigners) get the same treatment. That means that when goods pass between member countries, the local customs authority doesn’t need to see what is inside the box at all. On the other hand, an FTA allows members the flexibility to decide their own external tariff policy. Canada does not need to leave NAFTA (or whatever Trump calls it) just because it has a new FTA with Israel.
Our ex-army Economics master assured us that the word ‘snafu’ stood for ‘self non-adjusting f*** up’. Assuming Britain is not willing to, at least partly, raise anchor on Northern Ireland, the equation is simple:
Independent and seamless UK + Borderless Ireland = Permanent Error.
If Britain leaves the EU Customs Union (which is a fundamental of Brexit because it will enable Britain to throw off the shackles of agreements with non-EU countries that benefit other members of the EU and not Britain), it will presumably sue for an FTA with the EU. But – even if the British decide to turn a blind eye to imports from Ireland – who is going to check the Rules of Origin on the Irish side on behalf of the entire EU?
Boris Johnson promises technology – a grander version, I suppose, of the automatic supermarket check-out trolley we have been keenly awaiting for years. There is only one problem – what they need is still the stuff of science fiction (probably not forever, but time is not on their side).
Mr Johnson – there is a less fanciful solution, but only if the British are willing to leave it to the Irish: