Lessons for Brexit from Nor­way’s hard bor­der with Swe­den

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - BUSINESS - By David Keyton and Jill Lawless

ORJE, NOR­WAY >> With fresh snow crunch­ing un­der their boots and a hand­ful of pa­pers to be checked and stamped, truck driv­ers from Latvia, Swe­den and Poland make their way across Nor­way’s Orje cus­toms sta­tion to a small of­fice where their goods will be cleared out of the Euro­pean Union and into Nor­way.

While many bor­der posts in Europe have van­ished,, Nor­way’s hard bor­der with the Euro­pean Union is clearly vis­i­ble, with cam­eras, li­cense-plate recog­ni­tion sys­tems and bar­ri­ers di­rect­ing traf­fic to cus­toms of­fi­cers.

Nor­way’s mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Eco­nomic Area (EEA) grants it ac­cess to the EU’s vast com­mon mar­ket and most goods are ex­empt from pay­ing du­ties. Still, ev­ery­thing en­ter­ing the coun­try must be de­clared and cleared through cus­toms.

Tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions be­ing tested in Nor­way to dig­i­tal­ize cus­toms pro­ce­dures for cargo have been seized on by some in Bri­tain as a way to over­come bor­der-re­lated prob­lems that threaten to scut­tle a di­vorce deal with the EU. But the re­al­i­ties of this north­ern bor­der also show the dif­fi­cul­ties that per­sist.

A di­vorce deal be­tween Bri­tain and the EU has stum­bled over how to guar­an­tee an open bor­der be­tween the United King­dom’s North­ern Ire­land and EU mem­ber state Ire­land af­ter Bri­tain leaves the bloc on March 29.

The Ir­ish bor­der area was a flash­point dur­ing decades of con­flict in North­ern Ire­land that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of peo­ple and goods across the near-in­vis­i­ble Ir­ish bor­der now un­der­pins both the lo­cal econ­omy and North­ern Ire­land’s peace process.

The EU’s pro­posed so­lu­tion is for Bri­tain to re­main in a cus­toms union with the bloc, elim­i­nat­ing the need for checks un­til an­other so­lu­tion is found. But pro-Brexit Bri­tish politi­cians say that would stop the U.K. from forg­ing new trade deals around the world.

Tech­nol­ogy may or may not be the an­swer, de­pend­ing on who you talk to.

“Ev­ery­one agrees that we have to avoid a hard bor­der in North­ern Ire­land, and ... tech­nol­ogy will play a big part in do­ing so,” said North­ern Ire­land Min­is­ter John Pen­rose.

But EU deputy Brexit ne­go­tia­tor Sabine Weyand said on Twit­ter: “Can tech­nol­ogy solve the Ir­ish bor­der prob­lem? Short an­swer: not in the next few years.”

The Cus­toms of­fice at Orje, on the road con­nect­ing the cap­i­tals of Oslo and Stock­holm, has been test­ing a new dig­i­tal clear­ance sys­tem to speed goods through cus­toms by en­abling ex­porters to sub­mit in­for­ma­tion on­line up to two hours be­fore a truck reaches the bor­der.

At her desk in Orje, Chief Cus­toms of­fi­cer Nina Bul­lock was han­dling tra­di­tional paper bor­der clear­ance forms when her com­puter in­formed her of an in­com­ing truck that used the Ex­press Clear­ance sys­tem.

“We know the truck num­ber, we know the driver, we know what kinds of goods, we know ev­ery­thing,” she told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “It will pass by the two cam­eras and go on. It’s doesn’t need to come into the of­fice.”

That al­lows Cus­toms of­fi­cers to con­duct risk as­sess­ments be­fore the ve­hi­cle even reaches the bor­der.

So far, only 10 Swedish com­pa­nies are in the pilot project, rep­re­sent­ing just a hand­ful of the 400450 trucks that cross at this bor­der post each day. But if it’s suc­cess­ful, the plan will be ex­panded.

In the six months since the trial be­gan, Cus­toms sec­tion chief Hakon Krogh says some prob­lems have brought the sys­tem to a stand­still, from snow block­ing the cam­era, to Wi-Fi is­sues pre­vent­ing the bor­der bar­rier from lift­ing, to truck driv­ers who mis­un­der­stand which cus­toms lane to use.

“It’s a pilot pro­gram, so it takes time to make things work smoothly be­fore it can be ex­panded,” said Krogh, who still felt the pro­gram could have a long-term ben­e­fit.

The pro­gram also lim­its flex­i­bil­ity for ex­porters. If a driver calls in sick and is re­placed by an­other, or ex­tra cargo is added to a ship­ment, then all the pa­per­work must be re­sub­mit­ted on­line.

Yet a greater bar­rier to dig­i­tal­iz­ing the bor­der is the com­plex­ity of in­ter­na­tional trade.

The Svi­ne­sund cus­toms of­fice, 90 kilo­me­ters (56 miles) south of Orje, is Nor­way’s ma­jor road bor­der, with 1,300 trucks each day car­ry­ing goods into the coun­try from all over Europe. Cus­toms sec­tion chief Kris­ten Hoiber­get has been fol­low­ing the Orje pilot pro­gram with in­ter­est but warns of sys­tem­atic chal­lenges to its ex­pan­sion.

“It’s very easy to deal with a dig­i­tal sys­tem when the goods are uni­form,” said Hoiber­get. “If you have one kind of goods in a lorry, it’s less com­pli­cated. But if you have a lorry that picks up goods at ten dif­fer­ent places abroad, the com­plex­ity arises rapidly.”

He said most of the ex­port in­for­ma­tion needed is avail­able dig­i­tally but Cus­toms, clear­ance houses and ex­porters all use dif­fer­ent com­puter sys­tems.

“There are a lot of pre­req­ui­sites to a dig­i­tal bor­der,” he said. “A fric­tion­less bor­der would need de­vel­op­ment and lots of leg­is­la­tion.”

Back in Orje, ve­hi­cles en­ter­ing Nor­way are ran­domly checked, with of­fi­cers mainly look­ing for al­co­hol and cig­a­rettes, which are cheaper in Swe­den. Bor­der changes are com­ing, but cer­tainly not in the tight two-month time­frame that any Brexit bor­der changes would need.

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