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I've read a couple of BBC articles on that (this and this one) but still don't have a clear picture of what the arrangement is. In the last weeks of 2020, I was a bit bewildered that all they talked about was fish, fish, fish (the sector that is infinitesimally small) but they didn't seem to pay much attention to the border issue which is, in my view, the most challenging and important part of any Brexit deal. So in late 2019, they decided on a border across the Irish sea. It's effectively a border of the Single Market. Please tell me exactly how it will work (how it works, rather), including:

  1. Are EU border guards there right now? Are they supposed to do the job or somebody else?
  2. How does the deal impact the matter? EU border guards still need to make sure that the goods are indeed British, especially after the UK strikes its first FTA with a third country. The checks add up to the cost of exports, don't they? Has it been estimated yet?
  3. Regular British citizens are also now searched and stuff like at a regular international border, aren't they?
  4. The Johnson government showed reluctance to actually accept the EU-enforced Irish border even though they had agreed on that (they hoped to push through a piece of legislature allowing them to neglect that part of the deal last year, you may remember). Are there any rumors or anything on whether they have any other plans to derail that arrangement? It clashes with Johnson's whole "sovereignty" narrative, he must be unhappy.
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    What EU border guards? There is no unitary EU border force. Also customs searches of travelers entering the EU customs union are exceedingly rare. I've never been searched, and I rarely observe anyone being searched. There's no reason to think that people traveling between Northern Ireland and Britain will be searched more than people traveling into the UK or Ireland from outside the EU were searched over the last 18 years. – phoog Jan 3 at 2:39
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    @phoog Frontex is in the process of recruiting a small standing border guard corps, with its own uniforms and equipment. I don’t think it would be acceptable to the UK in this case but if the lack of a border force separate from national forces was the main issue, it could be a solution. It’s been discussed as an option for Gibraltar (but without fully solving the question as Spain understands that it would still act under its authority). – Relaxed Jan 3 at 12:43
  • The reason the border hasn't been talked about much recently is that these issues were effectively resolved with the Withdrawal Agreement that came into effect on 31st January 2019 (the so called "oven ready deal"). The recent deal is a trade one and although coming to such an agreement makes the implementation of the WA easier it was not concerned with the border directly. – Alan Dev Jan 4 at 21:47
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Are EU border guards there right now? Are they supposed to do the job or somebody else?

No, whatever inspections may be necessary should be carried out by British personnel, e.g. at the Points of Entry operated by Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Similarly, declarations to determine whether goods are “at risk” of entering the EU and VAT payments will need to be made through Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.

Generally speaking, customs inspections in the EU are carried out by the relevant national agencies or departments, who are in charge of applying EU law and collecting duties on behalf of the EU (and VAT, which is shared between member states and the EU) so there isn't any established EU border force that would be ready to pick up the task. Frontex recently started setting up an independent uniformed “European Border and Coast Guard Agency” but it's intended to deal with police/immigration matters rather than customs issues and can only assist member states in very specific cases.

There is a specialised committee “on implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland” and reviews planned in the original agreement to ensure this setup is working and the UK is not simply ignoring the rules but the general assumption is that it can be trusted to carry out the necessary checks on the ground. In any case, the presence of foreign uniformed law enforcement officers is unlikely to be acceptable to the UK.

How does the deal impact the matter? EU border guards still need to make sure that the goods are indeed British, especially after the UK strikes its first FTA with a third country. The checks add up to the cost of exports, don't they? Has it been estimated yet?

It has been clear for a long time that the deal would not be enough to make checks completely unnecessary. My understanding is that it helps a bit as most goods imported into Northern Ireland from Great Britain will be deemed “not at risk” by virtue of the zero tariff.

The backstop and then the Nothern Ireland protocol were always designed (with some contructive ambiguity) to minimise checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (while eliminating them completely at the Nothern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border). So with respect to Northern Ireland the main issue is not checks and delays but a new de facto regulatory border and additional paperwork.

It doesn't completely eliminate physical checks (especially but not only for live animals, plants and agri-food goods) but most of these formalities can be done electronically. Some certification is also performed by third parties (e.g. Official Veterinarians) and all this does indeed have a cost. I assume costs estimates exist, possibly not all of them public, but I don't know much about them.

Regular British citizens are also now searched and stuff like at a regular international border, aren't they?

No, that's not the case and is not particularly likely to be an issue. Importantly, even at regular EU external borders, customs inspections are relatively rare. Systematic checks are reserved for immigration matters (Schengen external border) and both the UK and Ireland are outside of the Schengen area and have their own arrangements in this domain.

At an international airport in the Schengen area, you can witness how this works for private citizens yourself. If you come from outside the Schengen area, you are supposed to undergo an entry immigration check where everybody has to queue up and show their passport (possibly through an automated gate) before going to the luggage collection area. After that, most passengers just walk out through the green lane, customs agents are often present (sometimes stopping people at random, sometimes just watching) or watching remotely but not everybody is asked to empty their bags or even merely answer questions, far from it.

At a regular international border (say between Greece and North Macedonia), I think each and every lorry needs to wait and be inspected in some way, cars have to stop, people have to show their passport but even there private citizens are not “searched”.

At the Swiss border (outside of the customs union but closely associated with the EU and inside the Schengen area so that immigration checks are not necessary), infrastructure still exists, border guards are present and may stop people but most just drive/walk through without interacting with anyone. For traded goods, most of the formalities are dealt with electronically and only some lorries need to be physically inspected.

The Swiss solution is not readily applicable here and it remains to be seen how well all this works in the long run but imports by private citizens do not seem to be very high up the list of concerns.

The Johnson government showed reluctance to actually accept the EU-enforced Irish border even though they had agreed on that (they hoped to push through a piece of legislature allowing them to neglect that part of the deal last year, you may remember). Are there any rumors or anything on whether they have any other plans to derail that arrangement? It clashes with Johnson's whole "sovereignty" narrative, he must be unhappy.

Much has been written on the goal of this manoeuver. I am not sure Johnson personnally cares that much about it. At the moment the British government seems keener on highlighting its ability to actually get Brexit done rather than complaining about the details.

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    "the presence of foreign uniformed law enforcement officers is unlikely to be acceptable to the UK": if doubts arise as to the UK's good faith enforcement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the UK might have to choose between allowing foreign officers to inspect traffic between the two and the EU requiring inspection of traffic at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Also, while the new European Border and Coast Guard Agency (thanks for alerting me to its existence) might not have customs enforcement in its remit, that could certainly be added if necessary. – phoog Jan 4 at 16:39
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Travel between the UK and Ireland (and other small islands such as the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands) is covered by the Common Travel Agreement. This maintains freedom of movement within that area but does not include the other EU states. The recent Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK imposes customs restrictions for goods that are moved or traded from England, Scotland or Wales, into Northern Ireland. The result of these two arrangements is that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, and there are no new restrictions on personal travel between the UK and Ireland. The only change will be the need for customs declarations between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and these seem to be mostly aimed at traded goods.

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  • Customs declarations imply a possibility of search, though, don't they? – phoog Jan 4 at 16:41

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