Brexit, the border and other European contexts

Carys Brown looks at how other European countries manage their borders with the EU and examines the implications for Northern Ireland. 

The Irish border has provoked unprecedented political drama across Europe this week, proving to be an all but intractable blockage to progressing Brexit negotiations. Yet this stalemate must be resolved – and fast -  if the European Council is going to grant progression to phase two of Brexit talks in December, which from a UK perspective we so desperately need.

Politically the border is a two if not three-fold issue involving multiple power axes: EU-UK, UK-Ireland and domestically DUP-Sinn Fein. In basic economic terms, the Republic of Ireland accounts for 34% of Northern Ireland exports, a hard border would jeopardise this relationship.

Ultimately the issue of the border transcends economic and political fears. The implications of anything but a porous border will filter down to everyday social interactions. The importance of protecting the status quo in border relations cannot be overestimated, for Northern Ireland it is a social problem of the highest order.  For NICVA and the VCSE Sector, which operates in this social sphere, the question of the border needs to be urgently addressed

On Monday morning it appeared as if the issue had been resolved, with news outlets reporting the British and the EU had agreed to a solution whereby regulations between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be aligned post Brexit. By the same afternoon, the deal was off after an intervention by the DUP.

So what can we learn from existing European border contexts that might help shape future debate? What lessons can we learn and are there other models we could adopt?

From the current position of uncertainty, it becomes even more vital to look towards the shape an EU-UK border may take.  

Swiss – German border relations:

On the 1 November 2017, Dr Christian Bock (Director of general customs in Switzerland) gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Dr Bock testified to the possibility of preserving an ‘invisible border’ in Ireland post Brexit using the Swiss-German border as a pattern from which to draw lessons and comparison. However, Switzerland is a Single Market member and signatory to the EFTA (Trade) and Schengen (free movement) agreements and yet still doesn’t have an invisible border with the EU itself. Furthermore, what is possible on the Swiss border may look very different when applied here.  

Perception and price?

Dr Bock made reference to the use of helicopters along the Swiss-German border as a means of policing. He noted that personnel from both sides of the border combine efforts in this. However, this type of policing pattern is far from realistic in Ireland. The peace process in Northern Ireland is steeped in perception, the use of helicopters would be a modern throwback to the heavily policed borders of the past. Not only would this bear a heavy political cost but also a hefty price tag in a climate of cuts to front line services. 


Moving ‘control points’, as Dr Bock referred to them, away from the border was a further mechanism proposed for discussion. However, this would only mean deviation from desired routes, the antithesis of a ‘seamless border’. Such a system would also not absolve the security risk associated with control points along the Irish border.

Reduced to a border?

Dr Bock was keen to emphasise the scope to ‘reduce’ the amount of inspection required, citing that only around 2% of carriers are impeded by physical checks at the Swiss border. However, the very idea of reducing implies substance. Reducing checks is not consistent with the concept of an invisible border. If our border is to remain invisible there would remain nothing physical to reduce. To reduce checks would be simply to accept a reduced, but still hard border.

A Trusted trader?

Continuing with the theme of reducing border checks, Dr Bock alluded to the potential to develop a ‘pre-qualification system for trusted traders’. However, this creates still further questions and areas for controversy. Who constitutes a trusted trader? What are the criteria for a trader or what constitutes trusted? What about non-traders? What about start ups? What about social enterprises? Many voluntary and community organisations provide services which require regular multiple vehicle crossings?

Cameras count?

Lt Col Rebekka Straessle also advised the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee based on her expertise as Head of the Swiss Border Guard. Notably, in reference to border policing, Straessle claimed, “You have either people on the ground, boots on the ground, or you have technical means”, she claimed not to see a third way around it. However, both of these means would serve to reinforce a ‘hard border’ situation. The UK government have set out their aim of remaining detached from infrastructure at the border, they have recognised that cameras constitute infrastructure. Yet, contradictorily the government haven’t ruled out the possibility of cameras on approach roads. Cameras on approach roads would simply displace border infrastructure, Straessle’s statement of there being ‘no third way’ around border policing to date appears an accurate assessment.

A Norway- Sweden precedent?

Likewise, we can look to the example of Norway and Sweden to learn something of what it might look like to operate on the outskirts of the EU. In a nutshell, neighbours are hard work. Fences can cause significant neighbourly tension, whose responsibility is it to look after them? When is it appropriate to cross its boundary? What height should it be? Borders throw up similar types of questions on a much larger scale, bordering the EU requires energy.

Rose tinted glasses:

Learning from the example of the Norway-Sweden border it is perhaps fair to extrapolate that a hard Brexit and an invisible border are mutually exclusive. Norway and Sweden share a rich history, they shared the same head of state until 1905 and currently Norway enjoys the closest arrangement with the EU without being part of it. Yet, despite this connection a hard border scenario is in operation, how much more will this be true of the Irish/NI border. Despite our shared heritage with Ireland and the estimated 23,000 -30,000 people who cross the border every day, there seems to be no guarantee that the Common Travel Area will be preserved.

The leave vote was in part driven by a reaction to questions of sovereignty, authority and influence. In voting ‘leave’, the UK expressed a desire to distance itself from the EU. The concept of a seamless and frictionless border does not follow this logic of increased UK autonomy. To cultivate something close to an invisible border, the UK need to rehabilitate its damaged EU relations.

A no stop shop?

The Norway-Sweden border endeavours to operate as a ‘so called one stop shop’, customs staff can work on either side of the border but stock should only be subject to one check. However, similar to the Swiss-German example, having limited checks does not amount to the invisible border currently in operation. In 2016 Norway-Sweden border staff carried out 229,286 inspections and most recently border stations themselves have undergone expansion. Moreover, exponential levels of paperwork and bureaucracy are accusations levelled against the EU from Brexiteers. Yet, the instituting of a border comes with paperwork of its own, in Norway and Sweden companies have been set up solely to assist in this process.

Despite May’s warning to the contrary, stemming from her speech in Florence. Remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market is crucial if the UK is going to come close to fostering an invisible, seamless and frictionless border with the EU, terms which have been so loosely tossed around.


A significant smuggling culture has developed around the Norway-Sweden border, in the first 6 months of 2017 alone, ‘322,000 litres of beer’ and’ 47,000 litres of spirits’ was intercepted by Norwegian border officers. Smuggling gangs capitalise on the policy disparities between Norway and Sweden. This capacity to exploit borders is a dangerous trend which the border here will seek to avoid. However, in Northern Ireland we have, perhaps, much more ambitious ‘gangs’ to contend with. Dissident ‘gangs’ for want of a better word, have significant political ambitions and pose a real threat to any potential border infrastructure which is likely to be erected. It may be wrong to claim one criminal group is worse than another. Nevertheless, just as a rise in criminal activity along the Norway-Sweden border has led to an escalation in border security, an Irish border is likely to follow the same course, possibly even more drastically in the event of a dissident attack as is a fact of our history.


Movement to phase two has not yet been summarily ruled out, perhaps we should remain optimistic. What’s more, David Davis was keen to highlight that ‘no deal’ was ‘possible not probable’ from a UK perspective. The UK and the EU have both formally recognised the importance of upholding the Good Friday Agreement ‘in all its parts’. As Katy Hayward has noted, agreement and use of the same language is a ‘strong starting point’ for discussion. The Good Friday Agreement is couched in international agreements, maybe we should take the commitment to protect it at face value? Comparison with situations such as the Norway-Sweden border are perhaps unfair, ultimately, we are not them.

Brexit researcher Carys Brown, is a 3rd Year QUB Politics Student on placement in NICVA.


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