Following his recent visit to Ireland, Boris Johnson told Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a no-deal Brexit would be a failure that both their respective governments would be responsible for. The Irish backstop remains a sticking point for the British government as they try to use the time remaining before October 31st to avoid leaving the EU without a deal. Dublin is insistent that the backstop must remain part of the Withdrawal Agreement Theresa May negotiated during her premiership, but they have not suggested a suitable alternative to this proposal whilst London has stressed the backstop must be removed.
The EU has said it will consider other solutions to the Irish border problem, but only once the Withdrawal Agreement has been signed off. However, there could be a ‘Norwegian-Swedish solution’ to the Irish backstop that both London and Brussels should consider.
Both May and Johnson stressed that the UK is leaving the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, and if this happens, it will be impossible for Britain to imitate the Norwegian-Swedish border arrangement as Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). This means it has to abide by many of the EU’s rules regarding the free movement of people, goods, capital and services, though it can pick and choose which ones it wants to implement. It is also a member of the Schengen zone that disables all passport controls between EU and EEA states. But because Norway is not part of the Customs Union, this means border checks are necessary, which proves neither Ireland nor Britain can hope to retain an ‘invisible border’ post-Brexit.
Despite this, one advantage of being outside the Customs Union for Britain is that it can impose taxes on goods being smuggled into the UK illegally. Politico reported on Swedish smugglers loading their vans with alcohol ready to transport to Norway’s black market. Within the EU, citizens can load up as much alcohol as their vehicles can safely carry and legally drive it over internal borders, as long as they can credibly claim it is for private consumption. But because Norway is outside the Customs Union, it imposes higher tariffs on cigarettes and alcohol. In 2017, Norwegian customs seized 322,000 litres of beer and 47,000 litres of spirits. Post-Brexit, it would be the UK’s discretion which goods receive heavy tariffs (if any) and which don’t.
There have been many arguments for deploying technology to ease British-Irish border tensions. The Svinesund customs office located to the south of Orje, Norway, told Voa News that frictionless borders do work, but they require development and lots of legislation. Much export information is available to Norwegian customs houses digitally, but the problem is they all use different computer systems. Also, export checks are difficult to operate when goods in one vehicle are not uniform. For the UK to mimic such a system, it would take a considerable period of time and it would be costly. A report by Kommerskollegium, the trade board for Sweden, compiled a 2017 report based on a survey of 2,000 Swedish companies that identified customs as the main problem hampering trade with Norway.
Therefore, the Norwegian-Swedish border is one possible model the UK and Ireland could imitate to a certain extent. It demonstrates the advantages leaving the Customs Union has for Britain as they can impose their own customs checks on goods they do not want to enter their borders. Though it could encourage illegal trading in the short-term, the success Norwegian customs officials have had in clamping down on alcohol in 2017 highlights how effective customs checks can be in discouraging this sort of behaviour. It is almost impossible to argue that border checks will not be necessary post-Brexit. It will take time to build the technology necessary to allow for frictionless trade. This is why it is in both Brussels’ and London’s best interests to reach a free trade deal, and fast. As Johnson said, both the British and the Irish governments can avoid a hard border.