There will need to be a physical border with Ireland after Brexit if the UK leaves the customs union, the former head of the World Trade Organisation has confirmed.
Speaking to MPs, Pascal Lamy dismissed the idea the UK could operate an invisible border on the island of Ireland while also having different trade tariffs with the EU.
He shot down the Government’s plan for a “virtual border”, saying such a customs arrangement does not exist anywhere in the world.
Lamy, who served as WTO Director-General from 2005 to 2013, also suggested Northern Ireland should be given the ability to set its own trade policy by the UK, but this would still lead to either a customs border with the Irish Republic or with mainland Britain.
Lamy’s comments came just hours after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson compared crossing the Irish border to moving between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster.
Speaking to Parliament’s Exiting the EU select committee, Lamy said the UK’s decision to leave the customs union and Single Market, “will necessitate a border.
“There will have to be a border because you need to check the goods and the people.
“You have to check, if there are duties, that duties are paid.”
He added: “I don’t see any solution with no border at all.”
Lamy suggested one solution would be for the UK to give Northern Ireland the power to operate its own trade policy.
He cited the example of Macau in south-west China, which has a seat at the WTO as Beijing has allowed it to operate its own trade and customs policies.
Yet he acknowledged that even that arrangement would see the need for a border, either “north/south” or “east/west”.
“That’s an extremely politically complex question,” he added.
When asked by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson if a physical border along the land boundary is the only way of complying with the requirements of the WTO, Lamy replied: “Yes. That’s my view.
“I find the concept of a virtual border extremely interesting, attractive. But I’ve never seen a virtual border.”
He added that Sweden and Norway – respectively inside and outside the customs union – has border posts.
When asked if he could think of any examples of a “completely invisible” border between countries separated by a customs union, Lamy replied: “I can’t think of any examples of this kind.”
On Monday, Jeremy Corbyn said Labour would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, citing the Irish situation as one of the motivations.
In a speech at Bloomberg on Tuesday, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox described Labour’s position as “a complete sell out of Britain’s national interests” and would leave the UK “in a worse position than we are today”.