Series 13 - Back to Brexit Basics – some border perspectives

Jun 11, 2018

Last week, in Series 12 of Back to Brexit Basics, we examined supply chain management and what businesses could be doing now to prepare for Brexit.  This week, we look at the experience at customs borders between the EU and non-EU countries and what can be learned in terms of Brexit.

Border considerations

How to keep the border on the island of Ireland open has proven to be a difficult one to solve in the Brexit talks so far.  Both the UK and the EU want to avoid a return of a hard border posts but so far there has been little put forward in the way of a workable solution to avoiding physical infrastructure or checks.

This week we look at how border operate between Turkey and Bulgaria, Norway and Sweden and France and Switzerland to get a sense of what the reality might look like for Northern Ireland and Ireland after Brexit.

Norway/Sweden border

Sweden is in the EU, Norway is not.  But Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which means that is part of the EU’s Single Market.  This means that Norway enjoys free movement of goods (i.e. no tariffs), capital, people and services but there are still customs checks at the border.

The border between Norway and Sweden is over 1,600 kilometres long and there are 10 official border crossing points for customs purposes.  Lorries go through customs once generally.  At the main border in Svinesund, on average, 1,300 heavy goods vehicles pass through the border every day.  Technology is used at the border which means that lorries only generally stop once and customs officials in both countries work together.

According to a report by the BBC, the average wait time from when a lorry arrives at the border to when it clears customs is 20 minutes.

Switzerland/France border

France is in the EU, Switzerland is not.  But Switzerland is part of the Single Market but is not in a customs union with the EU.   This means that Switzerland’s regulations in terms of product quality and standards are fully aligned with EU rules; thereby reducing quality control checks at the border.

The border between Switzerland and France is over 500 kilometres long and there are customs controls in the form of physical infrastructure at several points along the border.  Some are only open at certain times (i.e. Monday to Friday) to receive declarations and others are no longer manned.

The average wait time for a lorry carrying goods is reported to range from 20 minutes to 2 hours.

Turkey/Bulgaria border

Bulgaria is in the EU, Turkey is not.  Turkey is in a customs union with the EU which means that certain goods can cross from Turkey to the EU and vice versa without customs duties arising. Turkey is not in the Single Market so there is no free movement of services, people or capital.  There are also restrictions on several types of goods including agricultural products.

Because Turkey is not in the Single Market, several regulations and EU standards need to be adhered to and checked before goods are allowed into the EU.  Therefore there is a need for traders to have certain documentation ready at the border including export licences, invoices and transport permits. 

The border is around 270 kilometres long and there are three designated crossing points for customs purposes.  Coupling this with the fact that additional documentation is required, this means that long delays at the border between Turkey and Bulgaria is normal.  There are reports of waits ranging from 3 hours to in excess of 24 hours in order to clear customs.

Is technology the answer?

If the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union, it is difficult to envisage how a hard border can be avoided on the island of Ireland.  Regardless of whether tariffs apply, customs checks are still going to need to happen in most scenarios. 

Technology can improve wait times at the border but it is important to note that it cannot get rid of borders altogether.  Trusted trader schemes where fast track customs clearance options are available to certain traders can also help but again cannot get rid of borders.

Read all of our Brexit updates and Back to Brexit Basics on the dedicated Brexit section of our website.