Is it possible to have no customs union and a soft border?



I know that there have been answers to similar questions in the context of Brexit, and the consensus seems to be that it's not possible. But in the question about why the US-Canada border is soft at least in some places, the answer says that the border doesn't need to be hard, because the US and Canada simply didn't make it a priority. The answerer doesn't seem to see the lack of a customs union to be a problem at all.

Now we can be pretty sure that neither the UK nor Ireland would make a hard border a priority. On the contrary, it's very likely that it would be a priority for the both sides to avoid having a hard border even in the case of no-deal Brexit; nobody wants the return of The Troubles.

Does it mean that a soft border without a customs union is perfectly possible, but the EU simply doesn't want it, and uses its strong negotiating position to avoid such an outcome?

PS. I know that it isn't the case that the whole Canadian border is as soft as in the linked question. But the smugglers will obviously use the softest parts of the border for illegal activities, so that doesn't really change my points.


Posted 2019-09-05T12:14:51.027

Reputation: 1 582

5The US-Canada border is a hard border in many places, merely because of the rugged landscape and low population density. This does not apply to the Irish border. This makes the comparison not so easy. – MSalters – 2019-09-05T12:41:47.667

3A soft border in the Ireland sense is one like the border between Washington and Oregon, not Washington and British Columbia – Caleth – 2019-09-05T12:50:19.073

@Caleth So you regard the BC-Washington border fragment discussed here as a hard border in the Ireland sense? What elements make it a hard border?

– michau – 2019-09-05T12:53:21.840

3There are any border controls somewhere along the whole thing – Caleth – 2019-09-05T12:54:02.617

1It's not about how easy smuggling can happen. By definition you can't smuggle anything between Belfast and Dublin, because you are allowed to move anything freely – Caleth – 2019-09-05T12:58:22.980

@Caleth Are Schengen borders hard borders in the Ireland sense too? The Schengen Agreement allows for spot checks. – michau – 2019-09-05T13:04:09.587

That's certainly harder than the existing border, yes – Caleth – 2019-09-05T13:06:30.427

Any border infrastructure is a target for violence – Caleth – 2019-09-05T13:06:55.690


Seems like the US Canada border is pretty hard; 2 weeks in jail for jogging across border

– Jontia – 2019-09-05T13:29:43.047

@Caleth There is no border infrastructure in Schengen countries, and I can see no border infrastructure in the discussed fragment of the US-Canada border. It looks like the Irish use words in a way that's hard to understand for the rest of the world, and make discussions about the Irish border confusing. Almost everyone sees Schengen borders as prototypical soft borders. – michau – 2019-09-05T13:33:46.987

5@michau anytime they are doing spot checks, that's harder than the GFA border. If they aren't, it's the same. – Caleth – 2019-09-05T13:34:56.107

2michau, your not seeing border infrastructure doesn't mean that there isn't any, as the jogger in @Jontia's link can attest from personal experience. Also, some Schengen internal borders have customs controls (Norway and Switzerland are the best known examples). – phoog – 2019-09-05T20:24:29.727



Just because you don't have a fence on every piece of land that separates two countries doesn't make the border soft in the sense discussed in the context of Brexit. It might make it soft in some security (or Trump) dictionary, but that's another matter.

As far as Brexit goes, a soft border has official crossings that look like in like this video; as in you're just driving on a highway and unless you pay close attention to the signs on the side of the road you'll completely miss it. (The border is actually where the striped yellow line on the side of the road becomes a continuous white line.)

enter image description here

A hard border (which the US-Canada one qualifies as for Brexit-discussion purposes) looks like this

enter image description here

Now show me a US-Canada crossing on a major highway (not some backroad) that looks like in the first picture.

What is being discussed more seriously as a model of the future Irish border is the Norway-Sweden border (the former is not in the EU, while the latter is). Here on a number of roads where trucks are banned, there is only video monitoring of the crossing. (Trucks have to use roads with regular border checks, for now.)

As a side/historical note, back when the Irish border was militarized, the British army attempted to close the back/"unapproved" roads (to all vehicles) by cratering them.

As for the EU vision (or to be more precise that of a study commissioned by the EU Parliament) for what's feasible for the Irish border (in the absence of the backstop)... it's actually not too far from the US-Canadian or Norway-Sweden border(s), including heavy use of CCTV, remote reading of driver licenses, and pre-approval of low-risk transporters who would see simplified border procedures. As the Independent commented on the "smart border" vision outlined in that study:

Now, does all this add up to a “hard border”? The definition of “hard” is, perhaps, open to argument. But what is clear is that the “Smart Border 2.0” proposals do involve physical infrastructure and border guards. This regime would be very different from the completely open border that resulted from the Good Friday Agreement. That can only be retained if the UK concludes a wide-ranging customs union agreement with the EU.


Posted 2019-09-05T12:14:51.027

Reputation: 76 605

What you've written is interesting and relevant, but it gives no answer to what I wrote in the second and third paragraph. – michau – 2019-09-05T18:42:48.473

@machau: it depends what you mean by soft border in those paragraphs. A border like the one between the US and Canada is likely after Brexit. You haven't shown/mentioned that there is a softer border than that between countries without a closer relationship. – Fizz – 2019-09-05T19:25:30.133


@michau: the type of border you described (US-Canada) is sometimes called a "controlled border" and falls somewhere in-between what EU countries have (mostly open borders, including UK and Ireland as of now) and "hard/fortified borders" with walls etc.

– Fizz – 2019-09-05T19:46:56.200

3Actually, a truly soft border doesn't have official crossings because everyone is allowed to cross it anywhere. – phoog – 2019-09-05T20:25:40.303

I see, I'm starting to realise that there is a language issue here. It looks like there are many arrangements that would be called a "hard border" in Ireland, and a "soft border" in most other places... – michau – 2019-09-05T21:45:02.297

1@Fizz And an unmilitarized border is often called "undefended" instead of "soft." – cpast – 2019-09-05T22:12:31.477

1‘remote reading of driver licenses’ — Do you mean number plates? A driving licence is very hard to read remotely, especially if it’s in the driver’s purse … – Jan – 2019-09-10T10:40:49.823

@Jan: they really meant remote reading of licenses. "UK and Irish citizens would be cleared by automatic machines at the border using RFID – Radio Frequency Identification – technology to check “enhanced drivers’ licences”". This was a study of "what's feasible". It doesn't mean it will make procedures terribly fast at the border, i.e. they don't imply cars will zip by and drivers' licenses will be checked at the same time. Their conclusion is "This regime would be very different from the completely open border that resulted from the Good Friday Agreement." – Fizz – 2019-10-16T05:44:32.420


As nobody actually answers....

The soft/hard at least in the Brexit context has nothing to do with how easy/difficult it would be to transfer people or goods illegally, but rather about whether one is required to do "administrative preparations, like reporting what is passed over and/or carrying passports". I have been stopped by a border controller between Germany and Austria [I crossed by car] also after the Schengen accord, but although at least officially one must carry an ID [fulfilling certain requirements, which e.g. a driving license does not fulfull] when crossing a country border within Schengen, still, in this contexts, the border e.g. between Austria and Germany is considered soft.

p.s. to @michau there are many border controls between the Schengen countries, and during the "refugee crisis" in 2015, even crossing the bridge between Malmo (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark) was controlled.


Posted 2019-09-05T12:14:51.027

Reputation: 320