Richard North, 01/06/2018  

If there is a limit to the depths to which Rees Mogg will sink in pursuit of his version of Brexit, it seems we haven't reached it yet. Tied to his new-found allies in the Express, he is doing a Hannan, asserting that the way to resolve the Northern Ireland border issue is "to model the province's post-Brexit boundary on Switzerland’s frictionless frontier".

And, typical of the coprophagic UK media, we have The Sun and the Mail follow uncritically in its wake, peddling the line that Switzerland has "extremely effective" borders with a series of EU countries while being outside the single market and customs union.

He is backed by cretins from the Express who have been to Switzerland to see "at first hand how the Swiss manage to avoid a hard border by using technology and assessing risk". Surrounded by EU member states, the paper says, "its borders with Germany, France, Italy and Austria run smoothly despite it remaining resolutely outside the customs union".

To Rees Mogg, this then becomes "a prime example" of how the EU is capable of resolving complex border issues when it wants to, from which the man regales us with the idea that: "The Swiss model is an example of what can be achieved if the political will is there".

Needless to say, the Express hacks mislead themselves and their Parliamentary sponsor, by focusing on transit traffic – for which there are special arrangements – then claiming that "hold-ups are a rarity for both domestic and heavy good vehicles".

Clearly, though, they have not been reading the Corierre Della Sera (Milan edition) which has been writing of a "customs war between Como and Switzerland".

The photograph above illustrates the result, the traffic scene the week before last in the Italian border city of Como, where – according to ETG News - over the Pentecost public holiday, the Swiss authorities had closed the border post. When the customs reopened, the backlog led to queues seven kilometres long on the main A9 highway, forcing local traffic into the city centre, causing massive delays.

This is not an uncommon event in Swiss border-land, where, unlike the UK where the subject is so often the weather, the papers write about the border delays which occur every public holiday when the customs posts are closed, turning the crossing into a "nightmare" over several consecutive days.

There is, in fact, an ongoing dispute between the Italian and Swiss authorities over arbitrary customs posts closures, the nature of which goes to illustrate that the border is very far from being frictionless.

A romp through the foreign media amply reinforces this point, destroying any illusions that the Swiss frontier is anything other than a real border, with active policing and an extensive range of controls covering many sectors.

The latest excursion comes on the French side, following the massive charges on domestic refuse imposed on their citizens by the Swiss authorities.

Frugal Swiss citizens have taken personally to exporting their rubbish to France. French customs have retaliated by searching the cars of local as they cross the border for their periodic shopping trips, fining them €150 for every bag of rubbish seized. In 2017, the customs services in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté intercepted nearly 10 tons of waste from Switzerland. In an indication that efforts aren't entirely successful, French residents in border areas are said to be padlocking their waste bins.

Shopping trips, it seems, are a major driver of cross-border activity but the sheer weight of traffic is causing concern. Swissinfo gives us a taste of the problems, telling us that. in the village of Koblenz, you'll see cars and ten-wheeler trucks backed up waiting to enter or exit Germany, blocking the idyllic view of the Rhine River.

Koblenz, it says, is one of many Swiss border towns struggling to cope with growing traffic: a combination of transport trucks, commuting workers from abroad and Swiss shopping tourists is creating headaches for the authorities, not to mention citizens, in these towns.

At the Koblenz-Waldshut border, some 13,000 cars and 1,000 trucks cross the border each day, leading to daily traffic jams in both Germany and Switzerland. Authorities are currently altering the routing of the traffic and erecting a new customs post at that border in an attempt to reduce the impact of the traffic problem.

There has been a steady rise in customs income at the Koblenz border, which climbed to CHF304 million ($348 million) in 2012 from CHF97 million in 2001, much of it linked to commercial traffic. Yet, while Koblenz has to deal with the fallout from the traffic chaos, it does not receive a share of the customs' revenue.

Cross border shopping is adding to the traffic congestion everywhere along the German border, where towns such as Konstanz feel under siege from Swiss shoppers. Traffic jams at the border are claimed to be an everyday occurrence.

Until recently, the weaker euro has made this option more appealing in recent years. In 2013, Swiss customs collected CHF39.2 million from Swiss shopping across the border. A recent survey found that Swiss shoppers spent nearly CHF10 billion abroad in 2013, including in online shops. It is estimated that the Swiss drove 1.16 billion kilometres last year to go shopping abroad.

In Basel, Switzerland and Germany have shared the CHF3.3 million costs of a newly-rebuilt customs post, to accommodate a new tram system. But still cross-border workers and Swiss shoppers give rise to endless cross-border traffic jams. This is not the only border post to be rebuilt.

Although collecting VAT from shoppers both sides of the border is a major function on the Swiss side where the 300 Swiss Francs (€275) allowance is exceeded, rooting out "VAT cheaters" is becoming a major task. The extent of fraud has required the instigation of additional offences. Administrative costs are significant and losses are estimated to run to millions.

The situation is becoming unsustainable. To deal with it, some believe that 200 to 300 new customs officials would have to be hired. In addition, new facilities will have to be built on the border, more parking spaces have to be made available and the storage areas have to be expanded so that business is not hindered.

As well as this growing problem, customs posts continue to carry out traditional functions, picking up drug smugglers, small-time cigarette smugglers and drivers who were drug-positive or driving without a license.

Recently, the Italian national football team was stopped for taking too much gear with it on a friendly fixture – past not-so-friendly customs officials. Last year, alert German customs officials intercepted two Lithuanian travellers trying to smuggle two valuable watches across the border at the Rheinfelden-Autobahn crossing.

Customs officials also find imports of radioactive jewellery, billionaires illegally importing works of art and politicians smuggling cash across the border. In Switzerland, there is no free movement of capital and sums over €5,000 must be declared. Sometimes, big money is involved.

If stopped, a hapless traveller can expect checks taking as long as four hours, depending on what officials are looking for. And while tourists from "safe" countries might get a relatively easy passage, at the main crossing point from France near Geneva, queues of lorries can extend 300 metres or more.

Nothing of this routine is conveyed by the Express, however, which claims its hacks were given exclusive access to customs controls on the Basel-Weil am Rhein autobahn straddling Switzerland and Germany. The paper's reporting team thus claimed it "crossed the busy border into Germany and back again without any delay".

Like everything else we are told, though, this is only a fraction of the true picture. The facility, with its 35 hectares, is the largest in Switzerland and the largest land tax system in Germany. Last year, more than 1,400 trucks passed through daily in the direction of Switzerland and around 1.900 in the direction of Germany.

The facility, which opened in 1980, was only intended for 600 lorries per day and has now been partially rebuilt. By the time the project is complete, it will have cost €26 million, the costs being shared between Germany and Switzerland.

Around 140 Swiss customs employees and 145 German customs officials work at the facility, and they are raking in the money. The German customs collect nearly one billion euros a year; Swiss Customs around 620 million francs.

But what is particularly interesting about the facility that it is notorious for its "kilometre-long" congestion. But, once the redevelopment is complete, it is hoped that morning traffic jams, after the overnight truck ban, can be reduced to two hours. For sure, the Express "reporting team" may have had an easy passage during a normal working day, but in the mornings and after holiday periods, it is an altogether different matter.

What the Express is offering, therefore, is a completely distorted picture. But even then, the very fact that it is showing border posts goes against the whole idea of an "invisible" border. But, with over 100 manned border posts, and such an active range of checks, the Swiss frontier has to be regarded as a "hard" border.

For Mr Mogg to pretend otherwise is unconscionable. But if he really does believe the Swiss border is a model for Northern Ireland, he has travelled beyond mere stupidity. We are seeing the onset of madness.

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