Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Is that a Wallonian pencil in your pocket?

This post is a bit of a digression from my usual banging on about the future rights of UK workers in the EU. Today, I'm going to talk about EU borders and what life is like if you are on the other side of the EU border.  I can only really speak of the Swiss/German border but I can't imagine there is anything special there that isn't replicated, say, on the Swiss/French border.  If you've never been to the Swiss/EU border then you might find it interesting to read what life is like there, how it makes life slightly more complicated and what kind of legal workarounds have developed over the years.  If you support Scottish independence then this might really be of interest because in your ideal world (and mine) there will be an EU border somewhere just north of Carlisle.  What might we find there a few years down the line?  I'm afraid this kind of statement might turn out to be no more than an optimistic soundbite reported by a "journalist".

If you've followed the witterings of this blog you will already know that I support Scottish independence and that for all sorts of personal and professional reasons I really, really value my EU status.  Pretty much the only route for me to maintain my EU citizen status is Scottish independence followed by automatic EU entry as a continuing nation.  If you've followed the independence debate then you'll also know that the Scotland/England border has been a matter of some contention over the years.  At the 2014 independence referendum there were all sorts of claims that the remainder of the UK would put a massive border fence at the Scottish border with passport checks and all sorts of time-intensive bureaucracy.  That was obvious guff.  Let's think for a second why that was obvious idiocy back in the heady days of 2014.  Well, there are two types of border:  customers border and passport border.   Assuming Scotland had been accepted into the EU (another point of contention but IT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED SO SHUT UP AND STOP GOING ON ABOUT IT) both Scotland and England would have remained in the EEA.  There would simply have been no need for a customs border because no taxes would have been due on any goods transiting between Scotland and England.  In fact, that would have been illegal under EU law.  A passport border would only have been necessary if Scotland had signed up to the Schengen agreement.  Nobody was advocating that back then or now.  An individual passing from an independent Scotland to England would have done so just as a cyclist on the Austrian/Slovakia border might hop across and back again multiple times on a Sunday ride along the Danube.  Replace Austria/Slovakia with Norther Ireland/Ireland and I'm sure you get the idea why border checks or patrols would never have happened. 

The case for independence in 2016 is rather different from the one back in 2014 because it involves Scotland staying in the EU while England exits. This changes the game somewhat.  I should state now that a passport border is highly unlikely because Scotland, remaining UK and Ireland can easily agree their own mini-Schengen zone.  It might look exactly like the Common Travel Area.  However, I simply don't think it is so easy to discount the likelihood of a customs border.  Why not? Well, I live in Switzerland and see the customs border every time I go to Constanz for cheap shopping.

What does the Switzerland/German border look like?  Well, it looks like this if you go on a sunny day:

The action-packed German/Swiss border at Koblenz.

There are similar borders all the way down the Rhine:  Jestetten, Bad Zurzach, Konstanz.   These are customs-only borders because Switzerland is a signatory to the Schengen agreement.  There is no need to take a passort with you but you might need some documentation for your shipment of Drake CDs.   Is he still number 1 in the hit parade?

I regularly see those borders when I go out for a cycle.  Sometimes the borders are manned, sometimes there is nobody working there at all, sometimes the guards look like they are too lazy to do any actual work.  There is no fence or anything like that so you could choose a slightly different route to avoid it.  Ocassionally, though, there are even temporary spot-checks on the smaller roads.  If you're unlucky you might get pulled over by a customs guard and he'll ask you nosy questions about what you have in the boot.   I've seen that a few times.  If you're driving an enormous articulated lorry then you probably have no choice but to go through a border station like the one in the picture above. There might be forms to fill out and documents to check. Sometimes customs guards get on the train in Germany and walk up and down before the first Swiss stop, looking for large packages that might require import taxes.  There are even rumours of patrols that wander through the fields and country paths that straddle the border, tracking down cigarette and alcohol smugglers who can't afford a car or motorbike.  In all of this, I have never once been stopped and I've been here almost 7 years.   Despite that, the border is very real.

Switzerland allows the import of up to 300 CHF per day per person without levying an import tax.   That's about 300 Euros.  Or about £10000000 if the collapse of Sterling continues at its current rate.  I can catch the train over the German border to take advantage of the strong Swiss Franc in the Euro-zone and spend up to 300 CHF without having to declare it at the border.  Actually, it's better than that because Germany has a VAT rate of 15%, while in Switzerland it is ony about 8%.  You guesed right, I can claim back the difference and make further savings.  To do that, though, I need to take a form to an office at the border. I did say the border was very real, didn't I?  If I try to bring back a job lot of PS4s across the border then I really should declare that and pay the import tax by filling out a form at, yup, the border.  You could, of course, risk it but maybe you're the cautious or nervous type so you think, "Hah, I'll get them to send them to me at my home address.  That'll fox the stupid border guards in their scratchy uniforms slaving away in the hot Koblenz sun".  Well, you're wrong.  You won't get the package until you pay the delivery courier the border tax and an additional administration fee.   That happened to me when I imported a German ukulele and a British bicycle.   The border even explains why a £2 ukulele part took 3.5 weeks to arrive from the UK: it probably just sat in the inspection pile until they worked out what it was, verified its value and sent it on with no charge.

The border leads to all sorts of strange activity because some goods simply can't be shipped to Switzerland from the EU.  Imagine you manufacture pencils and sold the EU distribution rights to one company and the Swiss distribution rights to another.  There would be no point in buying the Swiss distribution rights if identical pencils would flood across the border from the EU at lower prices.  If you had the Swiss distribution rights then you would need to tell that pencil manufacturer to contractually forbid the EU distributor from selling pencils in Switzerland.  This is exactly what happens:  quite often I try to buy an item online and find that it cannot be shipped from the EU. OK, look it up and see if there is a Swiss supplier.  Sometimes the price really puts you off, while sometimes it simply isn't for sale here because nobody has taken up the distribution rights. What to do if you really want that unique Wallonian pencil?  It is time to introduce the Lieferaddresse.   For a small fee of around 5 Euros you can have your item sent to an address on the German side.  Last time I was at the Jestetten border there was a Lieferaddresse right in front of the customs border.   Everyone is doing this because it can really save a lot of money.  All because of the customs border.  Which is very real.

Would we have a similar Scotland/England border?  I think we would, in time.  In fact, I think it is almost inevitable.  Imagine the EU abolished all alcohol tax, while England raised it.  That would be an invitation to smugglers to buy all known stocks of our delicious whisky and spirit it over the border.  Imagine the Scottish pound became suddenly valuable due to an uptick in oil prices?  That would be an invitation to start an illicit fish and chip supper smuggling ring based in Carlisle.  Any kind of divergence in taxation, currency or availability would lead to pressure in one direction or another.  I can't see either government accepting that. They will have to put checks on the border.  That doesn't mean a "hard" border; it doesn't mean horrible queues; it doesn't mean a huge, impenetrable fence Trump-style;  and it doesn't mean that you can't cycle down to Carlisle and back without your passport.  The border will certainly look nothing like Tove Stryke's bleak vision. Well, certainly not on the Scottish side, which will by then be a socialist utopia.   But there might be a border that looks kind of like the one at Koblenz only with less sunshine. It will become a simple fact of life as the economies of the nations diverge, which they surely will.

Over and out,


PS apologies for Mcglashan's old-fashioned language.   My take is that the joke is very much on him so just add homophobia to his rather unpleasant hatred of the English. 



  1. Excellent exposition of the real situation.

    I'm a long-term expat, who started working for a UN agency in Geneva pre-Schengen, and long before the Swiss entered in 2009, but the situation wasn't very different even then, with Geneva [TPG] buses travelling far out into surrounding France and only very seldom being checked at the frontier.

    Now I'm semi-retired and split my time mostly between Spain & Switzerland. The nearest supermarket to my flat in Canton Vaud is over the border in France and open longer than Swiss supermarkets, so guess where most of my food shopping takes place.

    May's latest pronouncements suggest continuing the CAT but a hard customs border, which will of course be much the same as the Swiss borders are nowadays.

    1. I bet that after saying I've never been checked in 7 years, the next visit to Konstanz will end with an over-zealous customs guard checking my shopping.

      I can easily imagine something similar to the lax Swiss border at the Scotland/England border or the NI/Ireland border. I guess it seems like a "soft" border until you get your car pulled over and asked questions about your multi-pack of toilet roll.

  2. I enjoyed you piece. However, your analysis of comedy is not quite as cogent as your earlier analysis in the piece.

    The camera is setup on the English side of the border looking north, hence when you cross the border, you cross to Scotland.

    Momentarily, the camera flips the other side, to look from McGlashen's perspective (from Scotland to England).

    Sorry for being a pedant!

    He steps across the border, into England, to deliver the punchline.

    1. Please do not apologise for being a pedant. Your comment is nothing of the sort - pointing out a glaring and embarrassing error is not pedantry. Thankfully, I don't do this for money or I would be pretty hungry by now.

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