hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Brexit: On the Swiss-Irish Border

“One should not consider that the great principles of freedom end at your own frontiers that as long as you have freedom, let the rest have pragmatism. No! Freedom is indivisible and one has to take a moral attitude towards it.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Alphen, Netherlands. 29 March. One year from today Britain will sort of leave the EU and maybe begin a kind of transitional/implementation/extrication period.  Last week’s agreement over ‘phase two’ of the almost Withdrawal Agreement opened the door to a hoped for (or not) future relationship between Britain and the EU, which was given a helping hand by the quite definite stupidity and incompetence of the Kremlin.  Still, there are some issues of contention that still need to be resolved, most emotively the future status of the inner-Irish border between Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to be sure check the front cover of Britain’s still EU burgundy passports) and the Republic of Ireland or Eire (to be equally sure check the front cover of Ireland’s still determinedly EU passports). 
For the Irish and hard-line Remainers, there is apparently no solution to the border issue other than for the British to effectively handover Northern Ireland to the EU and thus Ireland.  And, in so doing, establish the precedent for other parts of the United Kingdom (Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland???) to secede from Britain to the EU…or scrap Brexit.  This position is, of course, complete nonsense and is simply the latest attempt to overturn the Brexit vote by those implacably opposed to it. 

Why is this nonsense? Two reasons, a Swede and the Swiss. Let me first deal briefly with the Swede. In an earlier blog on the Battle of Brexit (Analysis Paper: The Battle of Brexit, 2 March) I referred to a November 2017 European Parliament report entitled Smart Border 2.0; avoiding a Hard Border on the Island of Ireland for Customs Control and the Free Movement of Persons, written by Leo Karlsson, the former Director of the World Customs Organisation. As I stated, after quoting Karlsson at length, “…the only real barriers to solving the inner-Ireland border questions are the willingness to enact a fudge, and the time it would take to install the Karlsson system. And, of course, the political will so to do”

It is fudge which brings me to the Swiss.  For many years I either worked Geneva and/or lived in the neighbouring Canton de Vaud.  Prior to Switzerland joining the Schengen Zone in 2011 both the Canton de Geneve and the Canton de Vaud had a formal border with France and thus the EU…although at the same time it didn’t.  Drive over the border at, say, Crassier, on the road from Swiss Nyon to French Divonne and rarely would one meet either a Swiss or French douanier.  That said, I can recall one occasion when a Swiss-American friend of mine wanted to show a carpet she had bought in Swiss Lausanne to a friend in French Divonne. About 200m over the border a French douanier was waiting in ambush to undertake a customs spot-check that both the French and the Swiss conducted every now and then.  She had to pay a fine.

In fact, we residents knew of scores of places along the border where one could cross from Switzerland into France at which there was never any controlle.  In other words, for many years both the French and the Swiss adopted an entirely pragmatic approach to the border based on the principle that most decent people observe the law and that douaniers rarely if ever apprehend terrorists or hardened criminal gangs.

The French even turned their pays de Gex north of Geneva into a ‘special administrative zone’ under French control so that frontaliers, expats and French citizens who worked in Geneva, could so with minimum disruption. Every now and then the Swiss and the French would exert tighter, often intelligence-led controls at either Bardonnex or Ferney-Voltaire, but the spirit of free movement drove the border agreement.  There is no reason whatsoever why Northern Ireland could not enjoy the same status as the pays de Gex did, not least because the North is already a ‘special administrative zone’.

One year on from Britain’s sort of departure from the EU my sense is that the experience of the Swiss implies another paradox of Brexit.  Brexit is a symptom of an EU about to undergo significant change.  Some poor states will continue to seek to gather closely around rich Germany and call it Brussels-administered deeper political integration. A couple of other richer states, such as The Netherlands, may go along for the political ride, but that is by no means a cert!  Another group of richer, northern states will seek to avoid such a fate.  Consequently, a new kind of two-speed EU will emerge over the next decade. Indeed, Britain’s departure could well be hastening such change as recent developments have shown.  States that traditionally hidden in Britannia’s skirts are now openly expressing their determination to prevent further integration.
My reasons for rejecting Brexit were because I foresaw the dangerous world into which Europe is heading and out of solidarity with my fellow Europeans in Central and Eastern Europe who had fought so valiantly over so many bloody years for their freedom.  My focus today is on minimising the disruption to European security that could flow from Brexit.  Equally, I have accepted Britain’s democratic decision to leave the EU, unlike increasingly desperate Hard Remainers now calling for a second referendum to overturn the Brexit decision.  Last week’s agreement in Brussels over Britain’s withdrawal has left them whistling in the wind. 

Two things are apparent to me. First, Brexit is not the end of the Brexit story. Second, if the EU is to survive it cannot remain in the hybrid, ineffectual political space it currently occupies. The world is becoming too dangerous for that. My sense is that precisely because of the nature of change in the wider world the EU also stands on the verge of radical change.  And that within the decade there could again be a place for Britain as leader of a looser grouping of states in the EU but not subject to federalist diktat.  If not, and the rest of the EU really does embark on a journey to the centre of political integration then Brexit will simply be confirmed. 

On the Swiss-Irish border between intransigence and pragmatism.
Julian Lindley-French  

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