Just eight days before Britain is to leave the European Union, senior EU officials still cannot rule out the possibility that customs checkpoints might have to be rebuilt along the volatile Irish border should the U.K. crash out of the bloc without a divorce deal.
In recent days, EU executive commission members have repeatedly warned that a no-deal exit for Britain is now likely, given doubts over whether the U.K. parliament will endorse the Brexit agreement by the EU-imposed deadline of April 12.
"A no-deal scenario is highly likely. Let there be no doubt whatsoever, a no-deal scenario would be extremely costly and disruptive," commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen told reporters Thursday.
Should that happen, the largely unpoliced, invisible land border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member country Ireland would instantly become a new boundary, raising vexing questions about how to run trade and customs checks.
Until Northern Ireland's violent sectarian Troubles era ended in 1998 with a peace deal, that border had checkpoints which were routinely attacked by armed militants.
Asked whether border posts would be built there in the case of a no-deal scenario, Katainen said "we have to make sure that products entering to the EU territory are safe and they comply with our quality standards."
Checks would be done, he said, "in the least possible disruptive manner and, when possible, as much away from the border as is practically useful."
Some officials have suggested that certain checks could be done at ports or warehouses and high-tech equipment could focus on risky consignments.
The dividing line between Ireland and Northern Ireland stretches for 500 kilometers (312 miles) and is dotted with over 250 official road crossings, more than on Europe's entire eastern flank. Commercial vehicles cross the border on average 13,000 times each day.
Animals and farm products would require frequent checks. Around 3,000 loads carrying beef, lamb, pork, poultry, eggs or dairy products might have to be stopped each day. Each check might take 10 minutes if things go smoothly, according to Northern Irish food transport experts.
Katainen said EU officials are working closely with the Irish authorities "to clarify the situation." He said the EU would provide Ireland with additional resources; "technical and financial, to address any additional challenges."
Both Britain and the EU say it's paramount to uphold the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that helped dismantle the once militarized Irish border and end a conflict that claimed around 3,700 lives.
"The Good Friday agreement will continue to apply in all circumstances. For us, it is a major political principle. Peace there is absolutely key. The U.K. will remain co-guarantor of that agreement and is expected to uphold it in spirit and in letter," Economy Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said.
"There will be (border) checks, let's not be mistaken about that," Moscovici warned, but they will take place "in the least disruptive manner possible and as much as possible away from the border."
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