UK backs away from tech solutions touted in Irish border report

19 March 2018 5:14pm
Northern Ireland Border

By Zosia Wanat, Matthew Holehouse and Lewis Crofts. 16 March 2018.

The UK government appears to be inching away from a controversial study that pro-Brexit campaigners have relied on for months to argue that technology could eliminate the impact of Brexit on the Irish border. In doing so, it is acknowledging that a broader political fix is needed.

The European Parliament report, examining how to ensure a continued soft border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, was touted as a potential magic bullet by many UK lawmakers — although its author and other experts don’t expect it to deliver “frictionless” trade.

In a change of tone, ministers yesterday acknowledged that the provisions outlined in the report, written by Danish customs expert Lars Karlsson, fell short of the solutions required to render checks at the 500-kilometer border unnecessary.

Suella Fernandes, a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, told lawmakers in the House of Commons today that the study, entitled "Smart Border 2.0," failed to provide the full means for the government to uphold its benchmark pledge to avoid border barriers.

“It does not go as far as the commitment made by the United Kingdom,” she said. “Our unwavering commitment is to not introduce any physical infrastructure at the border. We have explicitly ruled that out. The report is interesting, but it does not go all the way.”

The remarks from Fernandes, a leading figure in the pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative party, are significant as many of her colleagues had seized on the report to argue that the EU institutions themselves supported the idea that the UK could exit the bloc’s single market and customs union without substantially altering border arrangements.

The European Commission has claimed that those plans make physical border checks inevitable. The most obvious solution, it argues, is for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU's customs union, and to maintain the body of EU rules in areas such as agriculture, waterways management and electricity. The UK has dismissed remaining in the customs union, but accepts the need for some degree of regulatory alignment.

The EU has said it cannot sign off the UK’s withdrawal deal without detailed agreement on the issue.

Fernandes’ remarks — later echoed in debate by Brexit Secretary David Davis — indicate that the government is shifting from a “technology-only” fix to one that encompasses the structural elements that the EU says is necessary.

Prime Minister Theresa May had previously lent support to pro-Brexit lawmakers hailing Karlsson's study as offering a solution. “I believe it gives some very good proposals for solutions,” May said during a debate on March 5, asking “officials to look at it very carefully.”

Limits of technology

The 48-page study was published by the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee in November.

It offers a set of technological measures that can help reduce the need for major infrastructure to conduct checks on people and goods crossing the border. Ideas include electronic pre-registration of people before crossing, enhanced driving licenses, and computer-aided border surveillance.

But such technological solutions aren’t enough to retain today's practically invisible border and its 200 crossing points, some experts warn. How intensive checks will have to be will be dictated principally by how far the UK and Irish regulatory regimes diverge.

“You don’t make a frictionless border by technology. Technology can only minimize the frictions,” academic Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast told MLex. “These solutions require physical infrastructure. Technology is useful but it is a tool, not a solution.”

The report has also been dismissed by Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who said it was "not a solution that we envisage.”

The usefulness of Karlsson's study was also questioned in a report on the Irish border today by lawmakers on the House of Commons' Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

They noted that while Karlsson proposes conducting some checks away from the border, these would also rely on fixed and mobile control units, plus the use of CCTV and numberplate-recognition technology at crossing points.

“We have had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border,” the lawmakers' report said.

Never implemented

In a blog post last week, Karlsson also sought to downplay the idea that his study offered an answer to the Irish border conundrum, saying it “gives a technical perspective, if needed at later stage”.

“It is up to the parties involved in the Brexit talks to decide if this is a model, entirely or partly, that can be used in this context or not,” he wrote. Karlsson has been called to give evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee on Tuesday.

The ideas in his report have never been fully implemented in any other country, Karlsson admits. It is an enhanced version of the Sweden-Norway border solution, which is not frictionless and requires checks on the movement of goods.

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