a-Fisking we shall go – Hugh Bennett in Brexit Central, again!.

Hugh Bennett (@hughrbennett) is the gift that keeps on giving. A rambling piece, devoid, nay utterly ignorant, of history and full of nonsequiturs and misdirection, his latest in BrexitCentral is a hodgepodge of jejune attempts at debating legerdemain, historical inaccuracies and whataboutery. So, standard Brexit stuff really

Read on. For an alternative, just as cutting, takes read here and here and here

The EU cat has very much been set among the Brexit pigeons with the Telegraphʼs front page report that the EU has rejected both of the UK’s proposals for ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit, prompting further claims that there is no alternative to the UK remaining in the Customs Union after Brexit.

Ok so far so fact

It was no surprise to see the Whitehall pipe-dream of a “New Customs Partnership” being rejected – numerous figures from across the partisan divide have long warned that the complex double customs system with back-payments would be unworkable. The EU dismissed it on the grounds that the UK would be outside its supervision, it would place an unfair burden on business and be too expensive to implement for the EU27 themselves.


However, the EU also dismissed a proposed technological solution, combined with exemptions for small businesses, reportedly on the grounds that it would set a precedent for “turning a blind eye” with countries like Turkey.


If this is genuinely the best reason the EU can come up with for why a technological solution won’t work, the UK’s negotiators need to inform them in no uncertain terms that they need to make a serious reassessment of their negotiating position. It is a red herring of record-breaking proportions.

Hang on now. Two things here Hugh. That the UK can or should tell the EU to cop on seems…pots and kettles. But that this is a red herring implies that it is something designed to distract as opposed to a statement of pure fact.

The EU-Turkey border could not be more different from the Irish border. I have crossed both. The border crossing between Bulgaria and Turkey at Kapıkule is the second busiest land border crossing in the world, a sprawling complex covering 3 million square feet that processes vast quantities of goods and tens of thousands of people every day. EU-Turkey trade amounts to over €144bn a year. It is a particularly secure border given the migration pressures it has come under in recent years. It took me several hours to cross it at a quiet period in the middle of the night. And this is despite Turkey being in a customs union with the EU.

So, a hard border indeed. Well. Turkey is in A customs union. Not THE customs union. It is one which excludes agriculture, services and public procurement. These are all fairly big deals in the EU. As the Telegraph, forsooth, noted, it is a second rate CU. I presume that the UK seeks to be other than second rate?  Lest Hugh think I am engaging in vile remainer propaganda lets quote from the Telegraph, no friend of the EU.

First, it’s important to understand the difference between a customs union, which is what the EU is, and a free-trade agreement. A customs union is a trade bloc within which members remove tariff barriers on each other’s goods. They also adopt a common external tariff and trade policy for countries outside the union.Conversely, within a free-trade agreement, countries remove tariffs on each other’s goods but they do not have a common policy for third countries. So within a free-trade agreement, you need customs barriers and “rules of origin” to check whether a product really comes from your preferred trade partner or whether it is from another country, in which case it is not entitled to tariff-free access under the agreement.


By contrast, the volume of goods trade crossing the Irish border is a vanishingly small fraction of total EU trade – under €5bn a year, equivalent to barely over 0.1% of current total external EU trade (€3.7 trillion last year).

Apples and oranges. Comparing trade between two regions versus a superregion external is just bonkers. We may as well scale it by the log of the weight of Uranus.

Also, wrong, in every sense. First one doesn’t just look at goods. The modern world runs on trade in goods and services. Looking at one alone is as sensible as looking at the sales of organic carrots as a measure of trade. Second, .. well.

From the Central Statistics Office, 2017 Exports to NI in Goods were €1.9 and Imports from NI €1.2 in 2017.  In services, from Intertrade Ireland,  latest figures are for 2015, from north to south for €2.75b. We don’t have separate south north services trade breakdown but lets assume a balance. So we have 1.9+1.2+2.75+2.75 = €8.6b.  Brexiteers are of course able to have their own opinions but they cant have their own facts.

 Ireland and the UK have had a Common Travel Area (or a mini-Schengen Area, to put it in terms the EU is more comfortable with) for almost a century.

Which is utterly unrelated to trade.  We had a CTA from 1922 to now. But from 1922 to 1992 we also had a hard economic border as we were not in a single market. From 1922 to 1972 we were not in a customs union. Godssake Hugh. Read some history of the world before you were born.

 The total population of Northern Ireland is less than half the number of people that cross the EU-Turkey border every year. To compare the Irish border to the EU-Turkey border is a farcical and wholly disingenuous exercise.

Nobody is comparing. What was stated was “we cant do this here and then say no to the turks”  Its Hugh who has spent time making comparisons.

No proponents of a technological solution are saying that the Irish border should be unenforced, simply that the volume of trade and the risk of non-compliance is sufficiently small that intelligent-led enforcement some miles back from the physical border itself is a proportionate way to enforce the necessary border formalities and checks.

Intelligence led. In South Fermanagh, in Armagh. Hugh. There is rampant smuggling NOW when the border is open and the police forces more or less merged on an operational basis save for jurisdiction. And you think post a brexitshambles this will continue? And what are we saying here – that increasing the profits of criminal, mostly ex terrorist led, gangs is a good deal if it gets blue passports? Brexit means empowering the IRA ? Im sure that is what is mean, no?

 For a comprehensive exposition of how the technological solution would work and why the common objections and misconceptions about it are not valid, readers should refer to Shanker Singham’s extremely thorough article on the issue last month.

That’d be the one that was almost a copy of a letter BoJo sent to the PM? That one? Here https://twitter.com/MatthewOToole2/status/975858648344875008

There is a need to separate the two issues of facilitating legitimate trade across the border – essentially a question of bureaucracy to which a combination of waivers and expansions of existing trusted trader-type schemes have been proposed as viable answers – and the need to prevent illegitimate trade across the border – which is much more a question of practical, political and economic judgement of the relative costs of border enforcement versus potential non-compliance across the border. It is largely this second issue where the fuss is being made – for political reasons.

Yep. There are two. But the two are interlinked.

This gets to the heart of the principal misconception about the Irish border. A technological solution and open border does not mean an unenforced border, or that either side of the border suddenly becomes a lawless territory.

It does if a) there is no technology now ; b) there is none in prospect that anyone can show exists ; c) no unmanned technology will survive the night on  a lonely border crossing. The latter is the crux. Decry it, say its wrong, but an ANPR camera, a CCTV system anything which is unprotected will die a lonely technological death the first nightfall. This is the reality.  So whats the solution? A guard on each one? How many? Will we perhaps need to close the border save for a sensible number? But that’s a closed border?

Nor does it mean that the Republic of Ireland is being forced to change its laws or its relationship with the EU single market and customs union. There are already different laws on either side of the border – one of the specific functions of the Good Friday Agreement is to manage divergence on either side of the border.

There is already a legal border for excise (i.e. alcohol, tobacco, fuel duty), VAT, immigration, visas, vehicles, dangerous goods and security – indeed, the primary function of the hard border of the past was as a security border, not a customs border.

For fecks sake Hugh. Cop the feck on.  This is historical revisionism of the rankest kind. It is literally denying reality. It is not true. There was a peaceful border from 1922 to 1956. In 1956-58 there was  a fizzling “border campaign” by the IRA which really was small beer compared to what was to come. So in essence from 1922 to 1968 the border was a customs border – this is a good one pager  Indeed it was only in the mid-1970s as the troubles spiralled out of control that the border became an attempt at a security border. Hugh displays an astonishing, insouciant, ignorance, which must be seen as wilful, of history.

Today, these border functions are enforced without any physical infrastructure in place.

What functions? Security? There is no need.

Adding customs declarations and marginally divergent product standards to the long list of functions the border already implements invisibly does not require any drastic change in the nature of the border. Even in the most complicated area, agriculture, the Director of Animal Health and Welfare at DEFRA has already given evidence to Parliament that the SPS-related risks would not be altered by Brexit from what the authorities are already managing across the border pre-Brexit, and additional infrastructure at the border would not be needed.

Of course here Hugh forgets that borders by their liminal nature are two-sided. And lets see what the other side thinks of this airy assurance. Not a lot.

Modern borders do not involve every single shipment being checked by peaked-caps guards and every single product being tested by white-coated technicians to see if it conforms to thousands of regulatory standards then and there at the border.

Except, they do. Maybe not AT the border but someone does. That’s why inspectors are at plants to ensure standards and that customs office occasionally do audits.

 It would be patently be absurd in both economic and practical terms for 100% of shipments and 100% of products to be tested at borders – the huge cost of doing so would obviously far outweigh any minuscule reduction in the amount of customs fraud, and it is simply not done. Instead, border agencies conduct checks on an intelligent-led basis using statistical risk assessment approaches to find the appropriate level of enforcement. World Bank figures show that developed economies in fact typically inspect only between 1% and 4% of imports physically at their borders, while product standards are primarily enforced within markets, not at borders.


Border enforcement, like law enforcement of any kind, is about striking a proportionate balance between the costs of enforcement and the risks of non-compliance. Where the risks are low – as they very much are between two highly developed economies with highly similar levels of product standards –

Again Hugh is ignorant of history here. Trade and cultural ties don’t stop nations and groups from conflict. If they did then civil wars would never happen.

and the costs are high – particularly the unique political and human costs of reimposing a physical border on the island of Ireland – then the proportionate and practical approach for both sides is self-evidently to take a light-touch approach towards enforcement.

Such as, now?

Ireland only physically inspects 1% of imports at its border now. Yet the EU’s objections are seemingly resting on the notion that registering UK imports remotely in advance and then spot-checking them a few miles back from the Irish border

Woah neddy. So we ARE having spot checks by white-coated inspectors in peaked caps? But hidden away? So not ON but near the border? Protected by whom? The police? Who protects them Hugh?

after Brexit will somehow represent an intolerably serious increase in risk to the “integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union” compared to the current arrangements.


If the EU wants to talk about precedents, annual EU-Switzerland trade is of the order of 100 times greater than NI-RoI trade, and yet the many Swiss border crossings to the EU are frequently completely unmanned, despite Switzerland being in neither the Single Market nor the Customs Union.

That’s the Switzerland that is in every effect in the SM/CU and which has shown that it is pretty much subservient to the EU demands on the integrity of the four freedoms negotiated with it , when EU push comes to shove? That’s the model? Anyhow, he is talking rot again. Here is the FT on the Swiss border.

“The Swiss-French border is efficient. There are no applicable tariffs. Regulations for goods are fully aligned. There is a common travel area between the two countries without the need for passport checks. But the border requires hard infrastructure because Switzerland is not in the EU VAT regime nor its customs union. Border frictions have separated markets either side of the border to the detriment of consumers”


Instead, the EU is adopting a maximalist, ultra-legalistic position for political gain – it has scented British political weakness

However that might have happened…

and is cynically

no, openly Hugh. Openly

using the Irish border issue as the thin end of a wedge to keep the UK locked into its legal orbit post-Brexit. 

Again Hugh shows his ignorance of history. The EU could give a flying fandango about its legal orbit. What A member, Ireland, has stated is that there is an existing international legal framework (the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements) which lockstep two regions – NI and Ireland. This is what the EU as an agent of Ireland in these negotiations is enforcing. I know Hugh is young but he must surely recall the Belfast / GF Agreement?

The EU has a paranoid obsession with preventing UK from gaining full independence, as repeatedly evidenced by its incessant attempts to set legal traps for the UK – ongoing ECJ jurisdiction, “punishment” clauses and “level playing field” clauses and, most egregiously, the Irish border issue.

Sigh. EU is a legal, not a make-it-up-as-you-go entity. It’s a fundamental discord between common and civil law approaches to jurisprudence.

Meanwhile, Dublin is happy to play along because Leo Varadkar has long ago taken the view that the only way to protect Ireland from what he sees as the disaster of Brexit

What disaster? By even the worst most apocalyptic measures Brexit will be a doddle compared to the banking crisis. Some reading here Hugh.

 is to force the UK to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. Varadkar took the specific decision to cancel the work on technological solutions initiated by his predecessor Enda Kenny when he took office last year.

Leo isn’t a dictator, thank Cthulhu3. He is a leader of a modern political entity with a very broad cabinet. The scrapping was a result of a realisation by all that the tech solution wouldn’t work.  Unlike the UK where blind faith and hope seems to be the operating animus of Brexit plans, Ireland has decided to seek input and expertise and…take their advice.

History has already shown how short-sighted and counterproductive this move has been, deliberately throwing away the potential for compromise in favour of the brinkmanship being engaged in by Ireland and the Commission today.

So it is no surprise to find that the EU’s only acceptable “solution” to the Irish border is not only the UK remaining in the Customs Union but also maintaining “full compliance” with EU rules on goods and agricultural products across the entire UK.

Well. The backstop to which the UK agreed in December says full compliance for a region of the UK. For very understandable reasons there is little appetite for a intra-UK border. Its quite literally the UK who is driving this.

This is obviously completely unacceptable to Brexiteers

Of course.

 (and indeed a good many Remainers)

Proof please?

 and would be a disastrous outcome of the negotiations, both for the UK’s future trade prospects and, more fundamentally, for the UK’s ability to democratically govern itself. British negotiators should immediately disavow their EU counterparts of any delusions that this is somehow going to fly. It will not.

Bye so.


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