Liam Fox has said a final decision on the Northern Irish border cannot be made until a UK-EU trade deal has been agreed, despite warnings from Brussels that trade talks cannot proceed unless an agreement is reached within days.
Ireland is seen as the key obstacle to proceeding to negotiations about a future trade relationship with the EU at a December summit, with the Irish government vocally dissatisfied with the options offered so far to prevent a hard border with Northern Ireland.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, has said he wants a written guarantee that there will be no hard border, which Dublin believes can be achieved only by keeping the region within the single market and customs union.
Fox said that option was out of the question. “We don’t want there to be a hard border, but the UK is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market,” he told Sky News’s Sunday with Niall Paterson.
The UK had always come to special arrangements with Ireland that could be written into the final agreement, the international trade secretary said, but there needed to be clarity about the future trading relationship with the EU before the border question could be settled.
“We have always had exceptions for Ireland, whether it’s in our voting rights, our rights of residence in the UK, we have always accepted a certain asymmetry and that will have to be part of whatever agreement we come to with the European Union. But we can’t come to a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state,” he said.
“And until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult, so the quicker that we can do that the better, and we are still in a position where the EU doesn’t want to do that.”
Fox said the European commission was “obsessed … about the concept of ever-closer union” and should put economic considerations first. “I think this needs to be an economic Brexit, not a political one,” he said.
Fox’s comments came after Ireland’s EU commissioner, Phil Hogan, told the Observer that the countrywould “continue to play tough to the end” over its threat to veto trade talks without border guarantees.
“If the UK or Northern Ireland remained in the EU customs union, or better still the single market, there would be no border issue,” he said. “That’s a very simple fact. I continue to be amazed at the blind faith that some in London place in theoretical future free trade agreements.”
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said he was concerned by Fox’s comments and they could put talks ahead of the summit in jeopardy.
“The one thing that we don’t want to do is jeopardise any movement quickly, because we need movement to enable us to get into the proper trade negotiations,” he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday. “So I’m hoping that isn’t a Downing Street-sanctioned statement that’s he’s made.”
Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, had earlier told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Labour had not ruled out staying in the single market and forging a new customs union with the EU.
“It’s not our call and it would be foolish of an opposition to actually put out there and say this is the solution, when we’re not in the negotiating table itself,” he said.
“If we’re at the negotiating table, we can have those discussions. I’d be very happy if Theresa May wanted to move over and call that election and let us do that. But until we’re around that table it’s not sensible to say what you can get out of the negotiations, because you’re not sitting there like you and I are, looking at the whites of each other’s eyes and getting a deal.”
This article was written by Jessica Elgot Political reporter, for theguardian.com on Sunday 26th November 2017 11.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010