Legal expert fighting Irish backstop trips up over border question

Martin Howe QC from Lawyers for Britain speaks to Sky News' Adam Boulton. Photograph: Sky.

Martin Howe QC from Lawyers for Britain speaks to Sky News' Adam Boulton. Photograph: Sky. - Credit: Archant

A legal expert fighting against the Irish backstop on behalf of Brexiteers had a difficult ride in a live television interview, while trying to present his case.

Martin Howe QC, who chairs Lawyers for Britain, was invited on to Sky News to make his case against the Irish backstop in the government's Brexit plan and to argue for an alternative like under World Trade Organisation rules.

Unlike what the EU had claimed, he did not accept there was a need for a hard border in Ireland if there is a no-deal Brexit..

Speaking to presenter Adam Boulton, he said: 'There will be no need to have physical infrastructure on the border. What will be needed is to exercise controls on goods that cross the border. But that can be done at premises and businesses which are sending and receiving goods.'

But Howe quickly became stuck as he was asked about the interpretation of EU and World Trade Organisation rules 'which seem to imply, when you have different trading blocks, you need a physical control.'

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Howe said: 'They don't actually; there is no requirement under WTO law to have physical controls at the border.'

Asked by a disbelieving Boulton where he can cite that this does not happen, he said: 'There are very open borders, for example, between Switzerland and the European Union and Norway and Sweden.'

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But the presenter interjected to point out he had visited both and 'both of them have physical infrastructure.'

The QC's answer was simply that 'you don't need it.'

'Why is it there if you don't need?' asked a confused presenter.

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'Well let's look at the position in Ireland and the Irish border. There is something like 300 road crossings,' he responded.

But he was not winning over Boulton, who continued: 'We know it would be a difficult problem but the evidence is that where there is two different trading blocks, you've cited Switzerland and Scandavian, and in both cases there is actual physical infrastructure.'

Howe persevered much the bemusement of the presenter.

'You don't need it – let me explain. There's no requirement under WTO rules to enforce customs controls by having a man wearing a peak cap putting a pole across the road on the border.

'What have you to do is, if you impose tariffs for example you have to impose the same comers, but you can to by saying to businesses if you import goods...'

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But Boulton would not accept his explanation.

'So you're proposing something entirely new. It's not been tested; you can't produce an example of anywhere where it happens elsewhere.'

Howe said that the process is 'not entirely new' and compared it to requirement at present for businesses to declare in VAT returns the goods that are imported from the European Union.

He said: 'It's not rocket science – it's not something new. You can collect tariffs.'

But Boulton said this sounded like 'additional bureaucracy' that would 'create delays' on the island of Ireland, and would involve 'more forms' and 'electronic infrastructure that does not exist'.

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