Boris Johnson’s row with the EU over Northern Ireland Brexit deals is ‘absolutely solvable’, but only if the UK accepts a border is inevitable, says the former head of the World Organization Trade.
But Pascal Lamy said the Prime Minister could only achieve a breakthrough if he stopped mixing “oil and vinegar” and throwing emotional Brexit politics at what he said was essentially a technical problem.
Lamy said he did not understand the UK’s strategy, which risked provoking a trade war with the EU, but added that it was unlikely to come to that because the “cost-benefit ” was “ridiculous”.
If things got worse and the EU retaliated with sanctions, the bloc would win, as those with the greatest capacity to trade have generally done, Lamy said.
His comments, in an interview with the Guardian, came after UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss threatened new laws to allow the UK to change part of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK government has come under pressure from the Democratic Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice, both of which campaigned on an anti-protocol ticket in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
Lamy, who has followed Brexit closely for the past seven years and is now chairman of the Paris Peace Forum, a French nonprofit, after leaving the WTO in 2013, said demands complete removal of the Irish Sea border would never deliver a breakthrough.
“I don’t understand exactly what they [the UK] are after,” he said. “If there is no border, it won’t work. You cannot leave the EU without having a border. It’s just having your cake and eating it.
“So there’s a question mark as to what exactly is the problem on the UK side. If it’s ‘we don’t want a border’, it’s like saying, ‘We don’t want Brexit’. So it’s unsolvable.”
Lamy continued: “The UK government has this ability to mix issues and cook political soup.
“These are oil-and-vinegar issues between emotion and technicalities. The emotion is extremely strong because Boris Johnson continues to beat the drum to say that Brexit is a good thing. He needs to raise the drumbeat to say Brexit is a good thing all the time.
If the UK accepted that a border was the direct consequence of Brexit, a solution could be found, Lamy said.
There could be a dynamic solution for Northern Ireland, he suggested. This would imply a “thin border” with few controls on trade across the Irish Sea while the UK would remain aligned to EU standards. It would become a “thick border” if the UK wanted to deviate from those standards, Lamy added.
This solution would require equivalence of standards with the EU and has already been rejected by the UK as unacceptable because it would compromise the country’s control over its own laws.
Lamy said it gets to the heart of the issue of borders between nations and always involves compromise.
“The UK is torn between its political position, which is that it wants to have the ability to diverge [on standards]and the technical consequence of that, which is a thicker border,” he said.
The only way to solve the problem was to “reduce the emotion” and “let the technicians find the solution that allows both parties to find a middle ground between a thick border and a thin border”.
Since the UK-EU border was non-negotiable, the best solution for the UK was to “play for time, because you can’t play with money”, Lamy said.
Solutions included trusted trader programs that would “carry the border up the value chain” and light checks at ports.
“Customs officers only have a limited amount of time during the day. It is about finding a compromise between ensuring control on one side and ensuring the fluidity of exchanges on the other,” said Lamy.
He played down the UK’s threat to legislate to ‘unenforce’ part of the protocol if the EU did not give in to Johnson’s demands, saying he found it hard to believe the UK and EU were getting together. end up in a trade war.
“If there was one, the EU would win because usually whoever has the greatest trade capacity prevails,” Lamy said.
With the war in Ukraine, Sweden and Finland making the momentous decisions to join NATO, Brexit was an “irritant” for EU leaders, he added.