The mainstream media are not having a good run. From mistaking the A6 section currently being upgraded for the York Street Interchange to claiming people said things they did not say even when basing it on a tweet, you do wonder if the downward spiral can ever be arrested. The latest nonsense was that the EU would attempt to “move the border to the Irish Sea”. It can and has no reason to do any such thing.
The border between the UK and Ireland can only be moved to the Irish Sea by the people of Northern Ireland freely voting to move it there. That is all there is to that.
There is, of course, the interesting practical reality that the UK has stated its intention both to leave the EU Customs Union (which in practice it must if it leaves the EU) and to avoid any physical infrastructure at the actual border. This, to be clear, is its sovereign decision. As with any decision, it has consequences – the most obvious being that customs checks will not be able to happen at the actual border given the lack of infrastructure.
To be clear, this customs square does need to be circled.
There are a few options. The first and most obvious is for the UK to form a new customs union with the EU – a UK-EU Customs Union similar to the many similar versions already existing. Many Brexiteers do not like this because it would restrict any future trade deals, but it should not be ruled out – those trade deals aren’t exactly coming along well (not least with trade war being all but declared on the United States) and it would solve a lot of practical and expensive problems, not just in Ireland.
The second is formally to place Northern Ireland within the EU Customs Union. Within the British Isles there is already a precedent for this – neither the Isle of Man nor the Channel Islands falls inside the EU Customs Union currently (but the UK does; so this means they are not in Customs union with the UK despite being UK sovereign territory within the Common Travel Area). Nevertheless, it would be politically and constitutionally awkward for an actual part of the UK not to be in customs union with the rest of it – there are in fact precedents for this too across Europe, but nothing like the size of Northern Ireland.
The third is to make Northern Ireland a Special Customs Zone. Unionists will instinctively dislike this too, but they should beware hypocrisy on this. Unionists have after all successfully argued for lower Air Passenger Duty to apply on trans-Atlantic flights from Northern Ireland specifically because its airports have to compete directly with those on the rest of the island (in other words, specifically because of its geography); they have also argued for reduced corporation tax to apply in Northern Ireland on exactly the same basis; and indeed they even argued for beef from Northern Ireland not to be labelled “British” during the Foot and Mouth crisis. Northern Ireland is already a Special Air Passenger Duty Zone, may soon become a Special Corporation Tax Zone, and was even a Special Beef Labelling Zone – all on account of its geography and all with Unionist backing. The case for a Special Customs Zone would be made on the precise same basis – geographical reality.
Precisely how such an “SCZ” would work would need expertise greater than mine. But let us follow the working. Customs checks need to be carried out. Customs checks cannot be carried out at the actual (sovereign) border. It is logical for them to be carried out at ports (as vehicles, notably those carrying freight, are stopped there anyway so it causes no further disruption). Imports from and exports to Great Britain would flow freely of course. However, it may be possible for imports from and exports to the EU to flow relatively freely too, subsequent only to a check that their origin or destination (as appropriate) is in Northern Ireland. In return, Northern Ireland could ensure relevant standards will be kept in line with the EU’s under a “Special Customs Zone Treaty”.
Such a treaty would have added benefits, as it may also free up trade with the EU to be conducted by Northern Irish companies without serious hindrance (all while remaining within the UK Single Market). Northern Ireland could sell itself as a “Special Gateway Zone”, with advantageous access to EU markets with its own duties and corporation tax arrangements, while all the time trading freely with the rest of the UK.
All this needs now are politicians actually interested in governing the place, and doing so in the interests of all its people collectively…