Boris Johnson’s dispute with the EU over Northern Ireland’s Brexit deals is “absolutely solvable” but only if the UK accepts a border is inevitable, the former World Trade Organization chief has said.
But Pascal Lamy said the prime minister could only make a breakthrough if he stopped mixing “oil and vinegar” and dumping emotional Brexit politics on what he said was essentially a glitch.
Lamy said he did not understand the UK’s strategy, which risked a trade war with the EU, but added it was unlikely to come to this as the “cost-benefit ratio” was “ridiculous”.
If things deteriorated and the EU retaliated with sanctions, the bloc would win as those with greater trading power usually do, Lamy said.
His comments, in an interview with The Guardian, came after British 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, who 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 president of the Paris Peace Forum, a French non-profit organization, after leaving the WTO in 2013, said demands to remove the border in the Irish Sea will never deliver a breakthrough.
“I don’t understand exactly what [the UK] They’re behind,” he said. “If there is no border, it will not work. You cannot leave the EU and not have a border. That’s just having your cake and eating it.
“So there is a question mark as to what exactly is the problem on the UK side. If it’s ‘we don’t want a border’, then it’s like saying: ‘We don’t want Brexit’. So there is no solution to this.”
Lamy continued: “The UK government has this ability to mix up issues and cook political soup.
“These are oil and vinegar issues between emotion and technicalities. Excitement is running extremely high as Boris Johnson keeps beating the drum to say that Brexit is a great thing. He has to turn up the drumbeat to say Brexit is a big deal all the time.”
If the UK admitted that a border was the direct consequence of Brexit, then 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 with EU standards. This would become a “thick border” if the UK wanted to deviate from those standards, Lamy added.
This solution would require equivalence in 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 this went to the heart of borders between nations and always involves trade-offs.
“The UK is torn between its political position and wants to be able 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 excitement” and “let the technicians find the solution that allows both parties to find a middle ground between a thick and a thin edge.”
Since the border between the UK and the EU was non-negotiable, the UK’s best chance of finding a solution was “to play for time, as you can’t play for money”, Lamy said.
Solutions included trusted trader schemes that would “carry the border up the value chain” and light-touch controls at ports.
“Customs officers only have a limited amount of time in the day. It is about finding a compromise between ensuring control on the one hand and trade flow on the other,” Lamy said.
He downplayed the UK’s threat to legislate to “undo” part of the protocol if the EU didn’t grant Johnson’s demands, saying he found it hard to believe the UK and EU would end up in a trade war.
“If there were one, the EU would win, as usually the one with the biggest trading power prevails,” Lamy said.
With the war in Ukraine and Sweden and Finland making momentous decisions to join NATO, Brexit was “irritating” to EU leaders, he added.