Richard North, 07/10/2019  

It is at a time like this that one realises just how awful Andrew Marr really is. The time in question was yesterday, when he interviewed the Latvian prime minister, Krisjanis Karins, to very little effect, missing an important opportunity.

The point is that Latvia and the Republic of Ireland - once the UK has left the EU (assuming this happens) - will have something very specific in common. Both will have land borders with third countries. In the case of Latvia, to be pedantic, it currently shares borders with two third countries, Russia and Belarus. The Republic of Ireland will, of course, share with but one, Northern Ireland – an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Given the potential commonality, one would have thought that Marr might have asked Karins to explain what was involved maintaining the frontier for the Single Market at the interface with a third country - such as the one with Russia. He might have then told Marr that land access was managed by prohibiting crossing at any place, other than via one of the seven official border crossings – five road crossings and two for rail – along the 214 kilometre border.

These border crossings are quite substantial affairs (the crossing on the road E262/A13/A116 near Karsava and Grebneva is illustrated, courtesy of Google maps) but the amount of commercial traffic handled is relatively low. Through some of the posts, the number of trucks crossing in 24 hours might be less than 100 while even the busiest handles less than 500. Yet, despite that, waiting times can be as long as nine hours, even if most trucks pass straight through without delay or wait for only a few hours.

Latvia's experience meshes with virtually every other land border between EU territories and third countries. Neighbouring Lithuania has had its problems while the crossings from Poland into Belarus can take more than two hours. Coming back in to Poland can take longer, with queues of 400 trucks being reported.

Truckers coming in from Turkey have an even unhappier experience, with waiting times for trucks running to 30 hours, with tailbacks running to 15 miles.

What Karins might have also told Marr is that, in no instance, are border crossings managed without infrastructure and physical border posts. Even on the 1,600 kilometre Norway/Sweden border, where customs officers on both sides share powers, mobile patrols and surveillance cameras do not remove the need for border posts.

It's a pretty good bet, therefore, that had Marr asked Karins for his opinion on the practicalities of having an invisible, infrastructure-free border, the answer might have been less than encouraging for the UK negotiators.

The Latvian prime minister might have replied that, since there were manned customs posts on every single land border shared by EU Member States and third countries, it would be hard to envisage a situation where there could ever be total reliance on unmanned borders.

Nor would Karins have needed to rely on his own country's experience, or the examples we've already cited. Less than a year ago, the Irish Times was reporting on the Poland-Ukraine frontier, saying that the idea of a frictionless border was "a joke".

The paper cites border official Cdr Robert Brychlik, at Dorohusk, Poland's busiest crossing with Ukraine, four hours southeast of Warsaw. Asked whether an outer EU border can ever be frictionless or invisible, he says: "There is no way this is possible, because there is no technology in the world that can prevent queues".

"Technical devices", he says, "help us optimise and shorten waiting times, but cannot solve them entirely. There is no getting away from the human element". And, while the target is to process private traffic in two minutes, trucks can be queuing for two or three days.

Talk of seamless borders, a senior official says, comes from people who don't understand why the EU has closed external borders. But they are closed so that other EU borders can remain open.

However, Latvia has something a little extra when it comes to the border with Russia. In March – just when the UK was supposed to be leaving the EU – contractors finished construction of 93 kilometres of barbed-wire topped fencing between Russia and Latvia.

The project also provided for building wooden footbridges, patrol paths, culverts and a footprint strip extending 207 kilometres, in addition to the 2.7 metre high fence, at a cost of €21 million. A further 100 km of fencing is being considered, at a further cost of €5.6 million, with plans eventually to fence off the whole border.

This, of course, is not the only fencing project on the EU's borders. Hungary has been a particularly enthusiastic fence builder, erecting barriers on long sections on the border with Serbia and Croatia. Their efforts have reduced migrants to a mere 15 a day, a daily reduction of more than 4,500 from the 2015 peak.

With the whole of Ireland being designated as a Common Travel Area (CTA), one cannot see immigration being a major cross-border issue, although security requirements and the need to limit smuggling may eventually demand some physical barriers. The spectre of a barbed-wire fence along the Irish border is hauntingly real.

Yet all of this passes Andrew Marr by. The best he has to offer by way of a question to the Latvian prime minister is a request for an explanation "in simple terms", why the EU is so against customs checks in other parts, away from the border of Ireland.

Karins tells us "it's a question of the single market". In Europe, from Latvia, he says, we're on the far eastern side of Europe, through Ireland far on the western end of Europe. We don’t have any checks or controls between our countries and certainly after Brexit it's important that there are no checks and controls between Ireland and the rest of Europe.

"I understand", Karins continues, "that for the British government there is a wish not to have a customs union, yet also to have open borders". He says: "We're all for open borders but at some level, just imagine from the European side if there are goods say coming from the UK, moving through Northern Ireland to Ireland into the EU that are somehow not adhering to shall we say the EU rules of the game, then that could be a problem in terms of the integrity of the single market".

This is actually largely unhelpful as Karins seems to be eliding the customs union and the Single Market, so the answer cries out for clarification and, maybe, an illustration of the system in place on Latvia's external borders.

But that is something we don't get. All Marr is interested in is Karins's views on the chances of a deal in the next couple of weeks. As to whether the EU is likely to go further – Marr's next line – he is content with being told that, to get a big change in view among 27 member states, "would be very, very difficult". Why it would be difficult, we never get to know.

The fact remains, though, that if the UK wants to deviate from full conformity with the EU's trade regulation, and stand outside the Single Market, the price to pay is border checks.

And since no Member State is prepared to remove physical border posts, or accept that it is reasonable to do so, Johnson's administration has an uphill battle trying to convince the EU that there should be no checks at the Irish border. As long as the UK continues to insist that this should be the case, the possibility of a deal seems remote.

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