Orje, Norway — 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 and into Norway.
While many border posts in Europe have vanished, Norway’s hard border with the European Union is clearly visible, with cameras, license-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. Still, everything entering the country must be declared and cleared through customs.
Technological solutions being tested in Norway to digitalize customs procedures for cargo have been seized on by some in Britain as a way to overcome border-related problems that threaten to scuttle a divorce deal with the EU. But the realities of this northern border also show the difficulties that persist.
A divorce deal between Britain and the EU has stumbled over how to guarantee an open border between the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc on March 29.
The Irish border area was a flashpoint during decades of conflict in Northern Ireland that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible Irish border now underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland’s peace process.
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 U.K. from forging new trade deals around the world.
Technology may or may not be the answer, depending on who you talk to.
“Everyone agrees that we have to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and … technology will play a big part in doing so,” said Northern Ireland Minister John Penrose.
But EU deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand said on Twitter: “Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years.”
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 told The Associated Press. “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 section chief Hakon Krogh says some problems have 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,” said Krogh, who still felt the program could have a long-term benefit.
The program also limits flexibility for exporters. If a driver calls in sick and is replaced by another, or extra cargo is added to a shipment, then all the paperwork must be resubmitted online.
Yet a greater barrier to digitalizing the border is the complexity of international trade.
The Svinesund customs office, 90 kilometres (56 miles) south of Orje, is Norway’s major road border, with 1,300 trucks each day carrying goods into the country from all over Europe. Customs section chief Kristen Hoiberget has been following the Orje pilot program with interest but warns of systematic challenges to its expansion.
“It’s very easy to deal with a digital system when the goods are uniform,” said Hoiberget. “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 ten different places abroad, the complexity arises rapidly.”
He said most of the export information needed is available digitally but Customs, clearance houses and exporters all use different computer systems.
“There are a lot of prerequisites to a digital border,” he said. “A frictionless border would need development and lots of legislation.”
Back in Orje, vehicles entering Norway are randomly checked, with officers mainly looking for alcohol and cigarettes, which are cheaper in Sweden. Border changes are coming, but certainly not in the tight two-month timeframe that any Brexit border changes would need.
“If you look 15 years ahead, I guess this office won’t be here. I won’t be sitting here stamping papers,” said Bullock. “But customs officers will still be on duty, to prevent goods coming into Norway that are not supposed to.”
As an AP journalist waited in the snow to watch a truck at Orje use the Express Clearance lane, a truck driver made his way across a large parking lot to the customs office.
“You must be doing a Brexit story,” he joked. “They’ll be in the same boat soon.”