Richard North, 22/07/2019  

With Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson burbling that, if we can put a man on the moon, we can solve the Northern Irish border problem, I'm reminded of a famous joke heard long ago, before political correctness had set in to rot the collective mind.

It concerns Saul, a devout Jew who had fallen on hard times. So engulfed in debt was he, that he prayed to the Lord to intercede and allow him to win the national lottery. In the days after the next draw, Saul watched the post like a hawk, but there was nothing. He thus intensified his prayers and again became slave to the postman's routine, expecting the notification to fall on his mat.

A week later, nothing had happened, nor the week after. Saul, now in utter desperation, raised his hands to heaven, and in a broken voice, implored his Lord and Creator once more: "Lord, Lord", he cried. "why hath thou forsaken me?"

All of a sudden, the sky darkened and clouds gathered to a terrible intensity, from which lightning smote the land. Then the clouds parted and from the depths came a deep, sonorous voice. It was He. "Saul, Saul", said the Lord", "do me a favour, do yourself a favour, buy a f*****g lottery ticket!"

Currently, it seems to me that Johnson is following in the footsteps of Saul. Had NASA taken the same path, we might have had the Lord imploring the Americans to "buy a f*****g rocket!" You can get to the moon, He might have said, but you do need something in which to strap your astronauts.

So it is that the Irish border problem is eminently soluble. But, as with the moon project, you are not going to get there by locking a few men in a room and have them making brm-brm noises. You need correctly to identify the problems, you need to address the obstacles, devise appropriate solutions and then apply them.

But what we get from Johnson's self-regarding article – with as near total clarity as it is possible to get in such matters – is the reason why he isn't going anywhere. After all this time, this superficial, blustering little man really doesn't have the first idea of what the problems are.

"At its core", Johnson writes, "the problem with leaving the EU is technical and logistical". From there, he thus avers that, "in order to come out of the EU customs union, and to maintain frictionless trade across the border of Northern Ireland (and indeed at Calais and elsewhere) we will need ways of checking goods for rules of origin, and whether they conform to the right standards, and whether or not they have been smuggled - but we have to do it away from the border, because no one can accept border controls in Northern Ireland".

What he does not understand, of course, is that borders are as much conceptual as they are physical. Mostly, they don't even appear as lines on the ground. They exist in the minds of men, with the resulting barriers created in terms of procedures and legal obligations. The significant problems, therefore, are not "technical and logistical". They are conceptual, procedural and legal.

However, with a man who so airily dismisses such things as "red tape", which can be so easily swept away with the distracted wave of a politician's hand – as if they had no substance - it is easy to appreciate why they would fail to register on Johnson's radar. But, as he will soon find out, ideas in the minds of men have far more traction than mere physical barriers.

The concept he will have personally to confront, if he assumes the office of prime minister – is the Single Market – something very few Tories understand anyway. Technically, it might be better described as a regulatory union, and his problem is that, on the UK's exit from the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic becomes the external border to the European Union.

That much is straightforward, so much so that even the Telegraph's resident guru has worked that one out. But, it does mean that when we place ourselves outside the Single Market, all sorts of procedural and legal controls apply automatically.

What does not seem to be fully (or at all) appreciated is that, unless exemptions have been negotiated within the framework of a formal free trade agreement, the controls must be applied in full and uniformly to all third countries – of which the UK will become one.

Under WTO rules, any concessions made by the EU to one country outside the framework of an FTA must be granted to all of its other trading partners. Major relaxations of border controls, could therefore, prejudice the integrity of the Single Market. This is something the EU is not prepared to do and will never negotiate. The integrity of the Single Market is a fixed and unchangeable quantum.

On that basis, the only sure way of securing frictionless trade across of post-Brexit Irish border is to maintain total conformity with the operating parameters of the regulatory union.

Here, what is definitely not understood is that applies to far more than simple conformity with Single Market regulations. On both sides of the border, there must be formal conformity with the regulatory ecosystem, which means that systems must be fully integrated right up to the highest policy level, with full and unrestricted intercommunication. And, in the case of Northern Ireland, this must apply also to the rest of the UK, if there are to be no regulatory borders between the province and England, Wales and Scotland.

This is, of course, what the backstop is all about, and it is that which has proved to be the only acceptable solution which the EU will adopt and which the UK government – under Mrs May – was prepared to put to parliament. In a nutshell, trying to secure frictionless trade without the backstop is like trying to go to the moon without a rocket, or expecting to win the lottery without buying a ticket.

Thus to categorise the border as a "technical and logistical" problem is to completely miscast it. Johnson rails against "technological pessimists", who seem genuinely to think that technical solutions are impossible. But it is he that has got it wrong.

When he talks so glibly about checks "away from the border", he has to address the issue that EU law requires sanitary checks to be conducted in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry.

This is not a technical problem – it is a legal problem. Even if there were technical solutions – and it is very hard to see what they might be – the overwhelming requirement is for the EU to change its laws. And, just for the benefit of the UK, that isn't going to happen, not least because if it is changed for the UK it must be changed for all of the EU's third country traders. That puts the integrity of the Single Market at risk.

Looking at this in more depth, when I wrote about "kippergate" recently, some of the discussion elsewhere touched upon the merits of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), a management system actually devised for the Apollo programme as a means of ensuring safe food for astronauts.

The essence of the system, and what made it so revolutionary at the time, is that it moves away from the traditional "end-of-pipe" solution, of ensuring food safety. This is where you set up a system, let it run and then test the finished product to see whether it conforms with set standards. Under HACCP, you are monitoring systems right though production and applying immediate correctives in the event of variance, so that conformity can be assumed without the need for end-point testing.

In the context of Brexit, the Single Market adopts the HACCP philosophy, where every state of production is subject to harmonised control – from broad policy, to enforcement, surveillance, data sharing, and standards - so that the end product can be freely circulated throughout the Union, without the need for border checks.

If you are going to take the UK completely out of that system, then the EU has to resort to the "end-of-pipe" solution of border checks as its main mechanism for ensuring that our products are suitable for circulation in the Single Market.

On those grounds alone, it is going to be extremely reluctant to tone down those checks but, if it did, that would also send the wrong message to its own Members. If UK products can enter the Single Market without system conformity, why should Member States be required to maintain the range of controls that they currently apply?

What, basically, we have therefore, as we saw with "kippergate", is a man who really doesn't know what he's talking about. Led astray by snake-oil con men such as Shanker Singham – who delivered his final AAC report on the 18th, carrying over many of the original errors – Johnson thinks he knows the answers to a problem he has yet to properly define and certainly doesn't understand.

And that, when push comes to shove, is what makes him so dangerous.

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