While Norway is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), all goods into Norway still require customs checks. (AP: David Keyton)
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 (EU) and into Norway.
- All goods entering Norway still must be declared as the country is not an EU member
- The country is trialling digital checks to speed up customs checks, but it’s in its infancy
- Brexiteers have touted technological solutions to maintain an open border with Ireland
While many border posts in Europe have vanished, Norway’s hard border with the EU is clearly visible, with cameras, licence-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, but everything entering the country still must be declared and cleared through customs.
Norwegian trials of digitised customs checks have been seized on by some Brexiteers as a way to overcome border-related problems that threaten to scuttle their preferred EU divorce — a concept known as “max fac” in Brexit parlance.
But the realities of Norway’s border also shows that technology has not yet been able to facilitate frictionless trade.
Answering the Irish question
Some fear a hard border will trigger dormant tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. (Wikimedia Commons: Keith Ruffles)
A divorce deal between Britain and the EU has been stuck on how to manage trade via the United Kingdom’s border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc on March 29.
After the Irish War of Independence, the island of Ireland was partitioned in 1921, with the predominantly Protestant north-east staying with the UK as Northern Ireland.
This border has served as a flashpoint between Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, where some of the former have sought to bring about a united Ireland by force.
The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible Irish border now underpins both the local economy as well as the island’s ongoing peace.
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 UK from forging new trade deals around the world.
Norway’s digital approach still in infancy
Despite technological advances, digital border checks are still the minority in Norway. (AP: David Keyton)
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 said.
“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 400-450 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 official Hakon Krogh said some problems had 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,” Mr Krogh said.
Digital borders demand technological uniformity
Chief Customs officer Nina Bullock says that paper customs forms won’t be around 15 years from now. (AP: David Keyton)
If a driver calls in sick and is replaced by another, or extra cargo is added to a shipment, then all the paperwork can be resubmitted online.
But the globalisation of trade means trucks will not just be carrying goods from one country, but from a variety of locations within and outside of the EU.
“It’s very easy to deal with a digital system when the goods are uniform,” Norway’s customs section chief, Kristen Hoiberget, said.
“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 10 different places abroad, the complexity arises rapidly.
“There are a lot of prerequisites to a digital border, such as development and lots of legislation.”
He said most of the export information needed is available digitally but customs, clearance houses and exporters all use different computer systems.
Back in Orje, vehicles entering Norway are randomly checked, with officers mainly looking for alcohol and cigarettes, which are cheaper in Sweden.
“If you look 15 years ahead, I guess this office won’t be here. I won’t be sitting here stamping papers,” Ms Bullock said.
“But customs officers will still be on duty, to prevent goods coming into Norway that are not supposed to.”
Border changes are coming, but certainly not in the tight two-month timeframe that any Brexit border changes would need.