On Monday, in a Commons debate about Brexit, Labour MP Emma Reynolds asked Theresa May a question about the future of Northern Ireland once we leave the EU. Could she give the house a single example of an international border between two nations, not in a customs union, that didn’t have checks on freight vehicles crossing the frontier.
Mrs May’s answer was startlingly frank:
“Of course I can’t,” she said “because as you well know, there aren’t any stupid examples and it’s all a total bloody disaster.”
Well OK Mrs May didn’t actually say that (more’s the pity). Instead she muttered vaguely about there being ‘many examples’ and that the government was looking specifically at the case of the US-Canada border, adding later that: ‘innovative solutions that can deliver exactly what we are talking about’ do exist.
The ‘Canada-US’ proposition was immediately picked up by Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who responded on twitter by posting his own snaps of the crossing, from a trip last year, that showed a big fat border – with all the trimmings and a cherry on top.
Now I’m no defender of the PM but while Mrs May was wrong to say there were ‘many examples’ – frankly the poor woman needs a break and given that there really are very few other analogous cases, perhaps looking to the Canadian-US border is at least a start.
So I took up Mrs May’s recent plea to the country to ‘pull together’ and help make Brexit work and set out to look for some answers.
This is what I found.
First a few facts and figures. The United States and Canada are of course very close allies indeed. They share not only a common history and (for many but not all) a common language but also the world’s biggest bilateral trade agreement and a 5,525 mile frontier – the longest on Earth. Despite the vast length of the border, there are just 119 land crossings (many fairly obscure) which a staggering 28,814 trucks, 140,000 cars and 300,000 people traverse every day.
The USA is easily Canada’s largest trading partner accounting for 73% of all exports and 63% of all imports (EU by contrast accounts for 43% of all UK exports and 54% UK imports). Canada in turn is the US’s second trading partner after China. Despite their close relationship, the frontier between the two countries remains surprisingly ‘hard’ when compared to those that exist between EU partners. While car passengers can move with some ease between the two countries tail-backs are not uncommon at peak times and even with a new (2016) pre-clearance agreement freight frequently doesn’t flow smoothly. The US Customs and Border protection Agency thoughtfully provides a website that gives real time updates on crossings between the two so it is possible to see just how swiftly things are going at any given time.
A ‘delay’ – it should be noted – is defined as anything over the normal 30 minutes it is assumed will take to cross so ‘delays of 35 minutes’ are actually hold-ups of over an hour.
I randomly and unscientifically monitored one point – the Lewiston Bridge at Buffalo/Niagara falls – over a 24 hour period (well not constantly – I slept and ate – briefly) between Tuesday 6th and Wednesday 7th and found that while for the most part there were no real issues for car traffic – freight vehicles were sometimes waiting up to an hour (on top of that standard 30 minutes) to cross – presumably causing further queues and innovative traffic jams and a lot of interesting vocabulary being deployed in truck cabins.
Aware that life was far too short to (entirely) be spent monitoring crossing times at a North American border, I put out a call to friends, acquaintances and family in the States and Canada. Of the couple of dozen replies, most confirmed that the 30 minute waiting time was normal and not a huge inconvenience – but added that this is only really the case if you are a white middle class person with your papers in order. Step out of that bracket – by – for example – having a drink driving conviction, or being born black, or wearing a baseball cap at a fun angle, or being young or basically breaking from the Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin standard and ‘they will (possibly) scour every inch of your vehicle and detain you as long as they want.’
Well that’s Border Patrols for you I suppose. Not a job that generally attracts laid back liberals. If you have travelled much, you have no doubt experienced similar – guards who take exception to your long hair, or skin colour, or country of origin, or taste in cars – and who can decide to make your day difficult…… because.
Still, thirty minutes isn’t so bad is it. Not bad at all. And I was genuinely a bit surprised. Perhaps it could work after all. OK it’s a slight inconvenience – but it’s only thirty minutes. Too early perhaps to start yelling: “Dan Hannan was right! It’s all going to be tickety boo” but not the end of the world. And then – just as I was lulling myself into this dream-world I remembered, with a jolt, that the current crossing time between Northern and Southern Ireland in a car is approximately 0.05 seconds.
It was not always thus. A customs frontier between NI and the then Irish Free State was first introduced on April 1st 1923 and stayed for 70 years. At times of high tension the border was a potentially dangerous, slow and generally unwelcoming place. But all of this was (theoretically) put to bed in 1993 when the EU removed customs controls between member states. Due to the ‘Troubles’ military checkpoints remained for over a decade, only disappearing entirely in 2005 but since then – the 310 mile border has been almost imperceptible. More than 30,000 people cross it for work every day, while 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and some 2 million cars zip across annually on any of the 275 roads that bridge the frontier.
Freedom to move about on your home island is a beautiful thing and it seems that the Irish on both sides have embraced it to the hilt.
Thanks to the close relationship currently enjoyed between the UK and ROI – citizens can get pharmacy prescriptions from their nearest chemist – regardless of which side of the border it might sit – or walk to the nearest pub – or pop round to see friends or family – or study at University – or get a job – or do a bit of shopping – or very basically just get on with their lives like normal people….. as most normal people desire. The NI economy has benefitted greatly from this (particularly post Brexit vote ironically) with the trade sector enjoying booming retail sales as citizens from the South flock there to do their shopping, buy their cappuccinos and inject hundreds of millions into the region.
But all of that – is set to change. Nobody knows what the future holds of course but as Professor Aoife O’Donoghue of Durham University put it to Channel 4: “the harder the Brexit, the harder the border.” And when it comes, things are set to get very complicated indeed. Currently, there are 156 more roads crossing from NI into ROI than along the entire US-Canadian border. It would be wholly impractical and prohibitively expensive to police that number of Customs stations (for both sides) and this means that a lot of roads are inevitably going to get shut. This will create bottlenecks (as happens between Sweden-Norway and US-Canada) particularly on freight routes – while greatly increasing the journey time between the North and South. This won’t stop vehicles – particularly commercial ones – travelling between the two places, of course, but it will certainly put a lot of people off. Going to work on ‘the other side’ is set to get a lot harder and that nice relaxing Sunday lunch and spot of shopping in Belfast, Newry or Armagh is suddenly going to turn into a massive headache for the people in the South.
“Have you got the passports? What’s the current waiting time at the border? Fuck it Jim – let’s get some frozen curry instead.”
Arlene Foster, the DUP and other Brexiteers would doubtless say it’s a price worth paying to get our sovereignty back – to which sane people everywhere should yell…..”some price Arlene!” For two decades the people of Ireland have been free to travel about their island at will. That ends now. It isn’t project fear. It isn’t ‘Remoaners’ whipping up anxiety. Every single major player in the Brexit process – on all sides – agrees. Free movement on the island of Ireland is gone and one wonders whether the English Brexiteers, willing it on, are going to be quite so happy themselves when they are stuck in a ten mile tail-back to Dover on the M2 – or paying £30 for a bottle of shit plonk.
In the meantime, there is good news for Mrs May and more importantly the people of Ireland. There’s a very simple answer to this impending catastrophe and you don’t need to seek innovative solutions in Ontario to address it. You see a ‘smart border’ which is proven to work – already exists. There for us all to learn from. This frontier, forged from years of common endeavour, is customs free, hassle free and allows frictionless trade and travel to those on either side. It avoids the heinous re-erection of walls, the threat of tail backs and most importantly, the poisonous reawakening of the dark divisions of the past – and it’s called…….. the thing that already exists.
Why not keep that instead?