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Ultra-hi-tech invisible Irish border ‘perfectly doable’, ex-customs chief says

Lars Karlsson, former director of the World Customs Organisation and the author of an EU-commissioned paper on Brexit and the Irish border, suggests in an interview with E&T that politics and ideology are sole impediments to finding an acceptable solution to one of the thorniest issues facing the UK.

Creating a frictionless “smart border” between the UK and the Republic of Ireland is “perfectly possible and doable” within as little as two years, the author of an EU-published research paper examining this aspect of Brexit has told E&T.

Lars Karlsson, former director of the World Customs Organisation and deputy director general of Swedish Customs, struck an optimistic tone about a subject that has vexed policy analysts and risks becoming a continual stumbling block on the path towards a beneficial deal between Britain and the remaining 27 EU member states.

Karlsson was commissioned by the European Parliament to write his study, titled ‘Smart Border 2.0’, and says he remains confident that there are neither technological nor legal barriers to creating a border with almost no noticeable difference from the soft frontier that currently exists between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.   

He told E&T he wanted to “put to one side the sensitive politics of whether people like Brexit or not” and had focused his research solely on practicalities.

Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), GPS tracking, radio-frequency identification, specialised smartphone apps and ePassports would each have a role to play in the ultra-high-tech invisible border envisaged by Karlsson, who recently gave evidence at a parliamentary select committee at which one Brexiteer told him his viewpoints seemed “like a breath of fresh air”.

Others have been less up-beat, though. At an IET workshop in Belfast last month most delegates said they lacked confidence that an acceptable solution to all stakeholders would be found in time for Brexit. In all, 46 per cent of those at the event described themselves as “not confident at all”, while an additional 14 per cent said they were “less confident”.

Just 4 per cent described themselves as “very confident” that a solution satisfactory to all would be arrived at, according to a poll carried out at the end of the event.

Allie Rennison, the Institute of Directors’ Brexit expert, told the conference, which was attended by figures from the region’s manufacturing sector, that avoiding a hard border with no physical infrastructure would “almost certainly require more heavy lifting and a higher cost burden [to be] borne by businesses if the UK maintains current ‘red lines’”.

The easiest solution would be for the UK to simply remain a member of the EU’s internal market and inside of a customs union with the bloc, she said.

Large engineering businesses like Bombardier, which has a major base in Belfast, as well as SMEs, often have highly interconnected supply chains covering the island of Ireland, entailing numerous movements across the border throughout the manufacturing process, as well as during sourcing and sales.

In addition, security specialists have warned that any infrastructure at the border, which was a flashpoint at the time of the Troubles, could potentially be targeted by dissident republican terrorists.

However, one Democratic Unionist Party MP, Sammy Wilson, asserted at a recent session of Parliament’s Brexit select committee: “[There is] existing infrastructure which is there at present, because there are CCTV cameras, there’s ANPR, and it’s not a target, although it does monitor cross border trade.”

Turning to Karlsson, Wilson asked: “That technology could be integrated into any system required to do the kind of monitoring you’re talking about?”

Karlsson replied: “Absolutely.”

Speaking earlier this week to E&T by phone from his home in Sweden, Karlsson explained: “I’ve taken the stand of confining myself to the practical side and the technical side of it [Brexit], of what happens if a border appears.

“If one country has a referendum and decides that more than 50 per cent want to leave something, then this conundrum comes along. How can you solve it?

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that it’s very sensitive, this Northern Ireland situation. People also bring up, in the discussions and dialogue, this issue that if there’s infrastructure then people could destroy it. Well, yes, they could. Of course they could, just like they could destroy a camera in central London that’s there to surveil for security or terrorism.

“So yes, that’s correct. This is the consequence, and there’s no possible way in international customs law today, including for the EU, to have a situation where there’s no consequence of being inside or outside the customs territory. That’s not a political issue; it’s a technical issue.”

A simplified and fully electronic customs declaration system and new voluntary ‘trusted trader’ system were advocated by Karlsson in his ‘2.0’ report. He maintained that it would be possible to avoid having to maintain a manned border with people physically checking goods if leading UK and the Republic of Ireland politicians were to come to an agreement about this. Any necessary checks could be moved away from the border and new joint arrangements around data could enable cross-jurisdictional cooperation.

Karlsson would also like to see the UK make more use of authorised economic operator programmes, where companies that meet compliance and security standards receive trading benefits across borders. 

He has even suggested that, in terms of developing a satisfactory system for trade and customs, both the island of Ireland and Great Britain are in a uniquely advantageous position compared with other European countries because of the simple geographical fact that they are surrounded by sea. They now have an opportunity to create a smart border that would be an example to the rest of the world, he said.

“From a customs and trade perspective it’s not bad to be an island, let’s put it that way,” he remarked.

However, he acknowledged that a fully operational smart border is not currently in use anywhere in the world and that the Irish government has expressed scepticism about his ideas.

 

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