The Swiss role: Brexit, borders and customs

Nov 10, 2017
Switzerland has been successfully navigating a shared border with the EU for a long time. What methods could Ireland apply to the Brexit border situation? Eoin O’Shea takes a look.

Last week, two Swiss officials gave evidence to the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Switzerland’s experience in managing its customs relationships with the EU trading bloc. Dr Christian Bock of the Swiss federal customs administration and Colonel Rebekka Straessle of the Swiss border guard assisted the Northern Ireland Committee to further its aim of “ensuring… that things go well on the island of Ireland” after Brexit.  

Switzerland is neither a member of the European Union nor a member of the European Economic Area, but it still has a close customs relationship with the EU. The UK’s negotiating position in the Brexit talks is that it too would like an external customs arrangement with the EU.  

By way of a positive post-Brexit note, the Swiss border boss opined that a workable customs relationship is possible even if there is no close union between the sides.  According to Dr Bock: “If there is goodwill and if you respect the special geographical and historical situation of two countries, it is possible to find a good working solution.”

So how does Switzerland manage its customs relationship with the EU and what lessons can be applied to the Irish border?  

  • German and Swiss border guards patrol their respective territories together (in some places, to a limit of 10km each side of the border). Dr Bock informed the Committee that both populaces accept the situation.  By way of personal experience, he said, “The funny thing is, I am there, clearly visible as a Swiss official, not a German official, and we have checked German people and we do not even get asked ‘What are you doing here?’ People accept it and like it.”
  • As well as cooperating on the ground, Dr Bock informed the Committee that there are German police helicopters flying in Switzerland with his people on board.
  • Some common police posts are maintained, manned by both Swiss and German border guards.
  • In some places, the Swiss customs posts are actually on German territory and, in other places, the Swiss customs posts are in Italian territory.  All according to geographic necessity.
  • The Swiss customs authorities have regular administrative meetings with their cross-border counterparts where “99.9% of all problems” are sorted out. In respect to political customs issues, Dr Bock said, “I have to say that on a more political level, in the customs field, I cannot remember any big issues we have had. You address the problem. You try to solve it.”
  • At all unmanned border crossing points, there are cameras reading each vehicle’s number plate so as to identify smuggling patterns. According to Colonel Straesse, cameras are essential for unmanned crossing points. “You have either people on the ground… or you have the technical means. I do not see a third way,” he said. 
  • Overall, about 1.7% of freight is physically checked but, at times, the customs authorities stop all loads passing during a concentrated period. According to Dr Bock, “this only works for one or two hours and then every truck driver in Europe knows that we are doing controls.”
  • There are plain-clothed Swiss customs officials on every international train to conduct spot checks.
  • The Swiss customs authorities do gather intelligence from farmers informing the authorities of customs transgressions committed by a fellow Swiss farmer. 
  • With respect to farmers having land on both sides of the border, Dr Bock shared their easy solution. “We have Swiss farmers who have part of their land in Germany and France. They know they have to announce [to us], ‘Now we are crossing the border,’ and they accept this. From time to time, we check them.”
  • Switzerland’s customs authority is not light on personnel. Excluding the army, it is the biggest unit of the Swiss federal government.
  • The Swiss position is helped in that there are no disputed borders except when, according to Dr Bock, “From time to time, you have to redefine the border because, in the Alps, the glaciers move a little.”
  • At all times, smugglers are liable to be intercepted by mobile customs patrols.  According to Dr Bock, their presence is known. “Of course we do not want to give bad people a good feeling, so they always have to know we can be everywhere,” he said.
As to whether the Swiss customs model was capable of advancing the aim of the Commons’ Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to get an effective but non-invasive border for Northern Ireland, Lady Hermon, a member of the Committee, summed up the situations as follows: “We are not really comparing like-with-like when we are looking at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”  

Perhaps. Switzerland is famous for its cheeses and chocolates. Is its customs system food for thought?

Eoin O’Shea FCA is a practising barrister specialising in commercial and tax law.