Andrea Leadsom, like many other Brexiters, believes the Irish border backstop could be replaced by a technological solution, what Brussels regards as “magical thinking” on the British side.

First published in June 2019.

Tory Leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom, speaking to Sky News’ Adam Boulton this morning, said that as Britain’s new Prime Minister she would look into replacing the Irish border backstop negotiated by Theresa May with the European Union by a virtual border using technological solution the EU regards as “magical thinking” on the British side.


Is Andrea Leadsom right to think that her backstop technological solution can be achieved much sooner than 2029?

Fact-Checked Answer:

DAVID HENIG, Co-founder of UK Trade Policy Project think tank — When David Henig gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Parliament, he said that a technical solution should not be ruled out, but that it would take time – a 10-year time frame – to put in place what he called “a very strong set of systems and processes.” Henig also told MPs, “This is not just about technology, it is a process question... How do you build up the trust and all the legal systems such that both sides are completely sure you can do this?”
[Source: BBC News.]

SEAMUS LEHENY, policy manager for Northern Ireland at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), a trade association representing over 13,000 companies — Seamus Leheny said, Right now the one thing technology cannot do is physically check inside a vehicle so the primary fear of industry is that any border controls will still lead to costly delays regardless of technology.Leheny also explained that “the primary problem regarding Brexit and the Irish border question [is] the border is unique with no current system anywhere in the world that could be replicated... We wait for a solution but to date nothing or nobody has come forward with it.”
[Source: Wired.]

KAREN WHEELER CBE, former Director General for Border Co-ordination at HM Revenue and Customs Karen Wheeler told a Brexit conference in Belfast last April that although technology currently exists with systems that provide for a certain level of automated customs processing or tracking of goods, “They are not all instantly available. Many of them would take years to implement and there is no border in the world which has a full package of all of these technologies. There is no such thing in the world at the moment at a land border which doesn’t have queues and processes and technologies.” She added, It may be that over a number of years more of those technologies will emerge. But some of those things are quite hard to avoid.” Karen Wheeler has since resigned from her position which is seen as a blow to the government in its preparation for a possible no deal on 31 October.
[Source: BBC News.]

HOME OFFICE POLICY UNIT — Last April, a leaked document from the Home Office Policy Unit revealed that a technological solution to the Irish border problem posed by Brexit would require input from 28 government agencies and “a myriad of interconnected existing and planned IT systems.” The presentation added “There is currently no budget for either a pilot or the programme itself,” and that, No government worldwide currently controls different customs arrangements with no physical infrastructure at the border.” Finally, the leak document raised doubts about the UK government’s ability to deliver such an ambitious IT project. “It is a big and complex project, with possibly tight deadlines. Government does not have the strongest track record on delivery of large tech projects.” Crucially, the presentation warned, “Current realisation for a similar technological solution in the UK is 2030.”
[Source: Sky News.]

NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS COMMITTEE — When some Brexiters take the example of the border between Sweden (EU Member) and Norway (non-EU Member) – who share a 1,600 kilometre-long border – as a model for a future hi-tech Irish border because of their use of scanners, communication system, automatic number plate recognition cameras and border police to carry checks yet Sweden and Norway have such customs offices at only 11 of the 57 crossings between them! they forget about the 2017 British parliamentary report which said it would be too complex and too expensive to imitate in Ireland.

PAUL MAC FLYNN, Senior Economist at Nevin Economic Research Institute Paul Mac Flynn explained to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the limits of technology during his oral evidence in October 2017: “When people say, “We are going to have electronic customs declarations and that is going to remove a lot of bureaucracy for businesses”, and stuff like that. That is fine. Borders are there for the people who are not filling in the forms. You cannot tell by the look on someone’s face whether they have filled in their customs declaration or not. The point that was made on the Sweden-Norway border, where they have a fully electronic system and people are sharing information, was: “Why are you still stopping people and x–raying trucks? They have told you what they have in their customs declaration”. They say, “How do we know they are telling the truth?” It is not complex trade infrastructure we are talking about here; basic human nature is going to be the problem. We can start out with a soft border but it will be a border which will be a creation of the dynamic that exists. If you look at how the current border manages differences in excise rates, there is no way the EU is going to allow its customs frontier to be as ill-policed as the excise border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic. There is an industry there in itself already.”

KATY HAYWARD, Lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast Dr Katy Hayward pointed out on Twitter that the surveillance aspects of any system involving cameras would “trounce personal privacy and data protection rules” and that surveillance cameras are likely to be hacked.

MICHEL BARNIER, EU Brexit Chief Negotiator — Michel Barnier and his team have consistently said that the Irish border could not be solved by relying on technology. His former Deputy Chief Negotiator, Sabine Weyand, once wrote on Twitter: “Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years.” Michel Barnier himself insisted last February on the point shared by the EU27 that the backstop is the “only operational solution to address the Irish border issue today.”


Andrea Leadsom is wrong to think that her backstop techonological solution can be achieved much sooner than 2029.

Not only virtual border technology does not currently exist and would not be implemented for at least a decade at the Irish border, but it would also involve issues regarding privacy and data protection, and would be much more complexe and costly than previously thought by Brexiters.

It is scary to see Tory Leadership candidates showing their absolute ignorance of technology when it comes to the Irish border, their damning ignorance of data protection regulations and their appalling ignorance of Irish history – despite being happy to remind us on every occasion the full name of their party: the Conservative and ‘Unionist’ Party.🔷

J.N. PAQUET, Editor of PMP Magazine.

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 11 June 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Policy Exchange - Andrea Leadsom. | 30 Sept 2013. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)