Skip to main content

World What to do about the Irish border? Canada-U.S. border technology examined as U.K. seeks solution to Brexit impasse

Cars, on screen at left, cross into the United States from Canada at the Peace Arch Border Inspection Station in Blaine, Wash., on Monday, Aug. 11, 2003, as U.S. Customs Inspector Douglas Sneve views images from more than 400 cameras that help officials keep an eye on ports of entry into the United States at the Customs Area Security Center.

TED S. WARREN/The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Theresa May is meeting European Union leaders this week in a desperate bid to salvage her Brexit deal, and she’s banking on a handful of proposals including some linked to Canada.

Ms. May is shuttling from Brussels to Dublin in order to try and break the logjam over the Brexit withdrawal agreement which is facing fierce opposition from British parliamentarians. She’s had little success so far and there’s less than two months to go before the U.K. leaves the EU on March 29. EU leaders have refused to make any changes to the agreement and before Ms. May even arrived in Brussels on Thursday, EU Council President Donald Tusk, who represents the leaders, lashed out at Brexit hardliners. “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely,” Mr. Tusk told reporters on Wednesday.

Ms. May has vowed to press ahead and she’s determined the U.K. will leave the EU next month with some kind of an agreement. But the main stumbling block looks as intractable as ever: The Prime Minister has to find a way to keep the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland completely open after Brexit. And she has to do it in a way that satisfies the EU, Ireland and dozens of fellow Conservative Party members of Parliament who, along with opposition MPs, have blocked parliamentary approval of the agreement.

The Irish border has been free of all restrictions ever since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. No one wants a return to a hard border - which would involve customs checks - and the EU has insisted that the withdrawal agreement must include a special provision known as the backstop which would guarantee the border remained open after Brexit. To do that the backstop would keep Northern Ireland tied to the EU’s regulations and standards while the rest of the U.K. formed a customs arrangement with the bloc that would allow the free movement of goods, but not services. The backstop would remain in place until the EU and U.K. reached a comprehensive trade deal, which could take years.

A transportation truck crosses the small bridge and border point separating Belcoo village, in Northern Ireland, and Blacklion village to the south in the Republic of Ireland. Residents of both localities cross the bridge freely several times a day to shop or visit friends and relatives.

Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Ms. May initially agreed to the backstop but she’s had to backtrack in the face of growing opposition from Tory MPs. They argue the provision could keep the U.K. linked to the EU indefinitely, which defeats the purpose of Brexit. They want the backstop scrapped or modified with a time limit or an amendment that permitted the U.K. to terminate it.

The critics have put Ms. May in a corner. She doesn’t want a hard border either but in order to appease Tory MPs she has to find a solution that involves changing or removing the backstop, something the EU has refused to consider. She’s come up with a few proposals to get around the issue and she’s raising them with the EU this week.

The first is to find some alternative arrangement that could replace the backstop. That could include adopting the technology currently in place along the Canada-U.S. border between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit. Brexit backers have long argued that the Canadian border demonstrates that there are technological solutions the U.K. and Ireland could use that would keep the boundary frictionless and avoid the need for the backstop. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis gushed about the Canadian border after a visit to Windsor in 2017. “I looked at the crossing times: 54 seconds. I looked at the mechanisms: easy, cheap, 15 years old,” he told a parliamentary committee after his visit. “Even in the most difficult environment, it worked very well.”

Story continues below advertisement

Canadian border expert Laurie Tannous agrees that the Windsor-Detroit border could be an example for the U.K. to follow, but it wouldn’t be a quick fix. “In terms of everything I hear with what’s happening with Brexit, I do think technology is the solution,” said Ms. Tannous, a special adviser to the University of Windsor’s Cross-Border Institute, who ran a four-day workshop on the Canadian border with British officials in Belfast in 2017. “However, I think it’s going to take time to implement because that’s been the biggest lesson with Canada and the U.S. and our border; we are seeing all these technological advances, there is less friction, but it takes time to get there.”

An unused Border Patrol barrack stands derelict at the border between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in Carrickarnon, Dundalk.

Paulo Nunes dos Santos

There are certainly big differences between the Canada-U.S. and Irish borders. Around 11 million cars and trucks cross the Windsor-Detroit boundary every year, roughly double the number of crossings along the entire Irish border. There are also passport controls and a customs booth which don’t exist in Ireland. The 500-kilometre Irish border is invisible, existing only on maps where it crisscrosses through farm fields and houses. More than 20,000 people live on one side of the Irish border and work on the other side.

Nonetheless, the Canada-U.S. border could be the future for the Irish border because technology has made it as frictionless as possible. Both countries have spent more than a decade streamlining the crossings for commercial vehicles, largely through the introduction of trusted-trader regimes. Under these programs, drivers, trucking companies and importers apply to officials in Canada and the U.S. for a risk assessment. Once approved, drivers can use a special lane at the border and they only need to produce bar-coded documents which can be scanned by border officers. Ms. Tannous said a new pilot program will take the automation further. “It’s an electronic lane where there’s not even an officer,” she said. Instead, equipment will scan bar codes on trucks, read licence plates and automatically check a driver’s documents. The Nexus program offers similar electronic access for approved travellers and the Canada Border Services Agency is making greater use of facial recognition software.

Not everyone agrees the high-tech Canadian border is the answer for Ireland. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar ruled out the possibility of a Canadian-style border after a visit to Windsor last year. It was “high tech and highly efficient,” he said. “But make no mistake - it’s a hard border. That is definitely not a solution that we can possibly entertain.” The EU has also rejected the idea and said there weren’t any technological solutions currently available that would provide the same sort of frictionless border that currently exists.

Another option Ms. May is considering is to modify the backstop by using a “joint interpretative instrument.” Canadian and EU officials came up with that idea in 2016 to get the Belgian province of Wallonia onside during ratification of the Canada-EU trade deal, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. At the time the Walloon parliament refused to give its consent to the deal over concerns about several issues including the dispute settlement process. The opposition threatened to scupper the agreement because the EU required unanimous consent from member states and Belgium couldn’t ratify without Wallonia’s approval. The provincial legislature only agreed after Canada and the EU added a joint interpretative instrument to the agreement that provided a binding interpretation of the deal to address the issues.

Since the EU has refused to change the Brexit withdrawal agreement, Ms. May is hoping that a similar interpretative instrument could be added to the deal to put a time limit on the backstop. Her officials have been working on a proposal but Canadian trade expert Jason Langrish doubts it will work. “To be frank, it was really a political gambit to allow Wallonia’s premier to save face and not be accused of caving in his attempts to block CETA’s signature by the EU,” he said, adding that Brexit was a completely different situation. “I guess it’s worth a try but I suspect it would be too little, too late.” The plan has also run into criticism from Tory MPs who say only a clear change to the withdrawal agreement will be enough. “If all we see is a codicil – a ‘joint interpretive instrument’ – expect a further substantial defeat for the agreement,” said Tory MP Steve Baker.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. May doesn’t have much time to find a solution. She is due to report back to Parliament on Feb. 13 and MPs could then move motions to take over the Brexit process by holding a referendum, delaying Brexit or cancelling it.

HIGH-TECH BORDER LESSONS

TO BREAK THE BREXIT IMPASSE

Canada-U.S. border technology is being cited

in the U.K. to keep the Irish border open after

Brexit and allow for easy movement of goods

and people. These four programs are in place

or in the pilot stage

PRE-APPROVAL PROCESS: ALL PROGRAMS

Participants (drivers, carriers, importers) are risk-assessed. Photographs, fingerprints and other information is submitted. If they are low-risk they are pre-approved for one of these programs

AT THE BORDER

4

1

3

1

2

TRUSTED TRADER PROGRAM

1

Fast and Secure Trade (FAST) lanes at border crossings prioritize FAST vehicles to allow them to pick the shortest line. At the border three (driver, carrier, importer) bar-coded documents are presented for scanning by an officer.

If approved they can proceed and all trade data declarations and verifications can be done at a later time

NEXUS PROGRAM

2

Using a designated Nexus lane, passenger vehicles stop and scan their Nexus card before proceeding to border booth for visual

inspection.

LICENCE PLATE SCANNING

3

When approaching the border, the truck licence plate is scanned to see if it matches records and whether user fees have been paid.

FACIAL RECOGNITION†

4

+

=

Registered in the FAST program. Customs is informed in advance that the participant

is coming. Cameras record the driver’s face and

use algorithms to compare with image on file

*This FAST program is being used at the Pacific

Highway port of entry at the B.C.-Washington

state border,**Telephone Reporting Centres,

† being tested at the Canada Border Services

Agency at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit

and the U.S. is testing it at Fort Erie, Ont.

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCES: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; WBFO88.7;

BUFFALO NEWS; SOME IMAGES BY MURAT YUKSELIR AND

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; VECTORPOCKET;

MACROVECTOR

HIGH-TECH BORDER LESSONS

TO BREAK THE BREXIT IMPASSE

Canada-U.S. border technology is being cited in the U.K.

to keep the Irish border open after Brexit and allow

for easy movement of goods and people. These four

programs are in place or in the pilot stage

PRE-APPROVAL PROCESS: ALL PROGRAMS

Participants (drivers, carriers, importers) are risk-assessed. Photographs, fingerprints and other information is submitted. If they are low-risk they are pre-approved for one of these programs

AT THE BORDER

4

1

3

1

2

TRUSTED TRADER PROGRAM

1

Fast and Secure Trade (FAST) lanes at border crossings prioritize FAST vehicles to allow them to pick the shortest line. At the border three (driver, carrier, importer) bar-coded documents are presented for scanning by an officer. If approved they can proceed and all trade data declarations and verifications can be done at a later time

NEXUS PROGRAM

2

Using a designated Nexus lane, passenger vehicles stop and scan their Nexus card before proceeding to border booth for visual

inspection.

LICENCE PLATE SCANNING

3

When approaching the border, the truck licence plate is scanned to see if it matches records and whether

user fees have been paid.

FACIAL RECOGNITION†

4

+

=

Registered in the FAST program. Customs is informed in advance that the participant is coming. Cameras record

the driver’s face and use algorithms to compare

with image on file

*This FAST program is being used at the Pacific Highway

port of entry at the B.C.-Washington state border,

**Telephone Reporting Centres, † being tested at

the Canada Border Services Agency at the Ambassador

Bridge in Detroit and the U.S. is testing it at Fort Erie, Ont.

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES:

GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; WBFO88.7; BUFFALO NEWS; SOME IMAGES

BY MURAT YUKSELIR AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL;

VECTORPOCKET; MACROVECTOR

HIGH-TECH BORDER LESSONS TO BREAK THE BREXIT IMPASSE

Canada-U.S. border technology is being cited in the U.K. to keep the Irish border open after

Brexit and allow for easy movement of goods and people.

These four programs are in place or in the pilot stage

PRE-APPROVAL PROCESS

FOR ALL PROGRAMS

4

Participants (drivers, carriers, importers) are risk-assessed. Photographs, fingerprints and other information is submitted. If they are low-risk they are pre-approved for one of these programs

1

3

1

2

AT THE BORDER

TRUSTED TRADER PROGRAM

NEXUS PROGRAM

2

1

Fast and Secure Trade (FAST) lanes at border crossings prioritize FAST vehicles to allow them to pick the shortest line. At the border three (driver, carrier, importer) bar-coded documents are presented for scanning by an officer.

If approved they can proceed and all trade data declarations and verifications can be done at a later time

Using a designated Nexus lane, passenger vehicles stop and scan their Nexus card before proceeding to border booth for visual inspection.

FACIAL RECOGNITION†

LICENCE PLATE SCANNING

3

4

+

=

When approaching the border, the truck licence plate is scanned to see if it matches records and whether user fees have been paid.

Registered in the FAST program. Customs is informed in advance that the participant is coming. Cameras record the driver’s face and use algorithms to compare with image on file

*This FAST program is being used at the Pacific Highway port of entry at the B.C.-Washington

state border,**Telephone Reporting Centres, † being tested at the Canada Border Services

Agency at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit and the U.S. is testing it at Fort Erie, Ont.

CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCES: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; WBFO88.7;

BUFFALO NEWS; SOME IMAGES BY MURAT YUKSELIR AND JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; VECTORPOCKET;

MACROVECTOR

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter