LONDON – Ireland's European commissioner on Sunday pressured British Prime Minister Theresa May to change course on Brexit talks to solve the issue of the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland so stalled negotiations can move forward.
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Phil Hogan said the border problem can easily be solved if May drops her plans to take Britain out of the European Union customs union and the single market when it departs the 28-nation bloc in 2019.
Failing that, he told The Observer on Sunday, the government should allow Northern Ireland to remain in these entities so no hard border would be required because there would be no trade barriers and no need for customs enforcement.
"If the U.K. 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."
Britain's international trade secretary, Liam Fox, quickly rejected this approach. He told Sky News the resolution of the Irish border issue will have to wait until details about future trade relations have been worked out.
"We don't want there to be a hard border, but the U.K. is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market," he said.
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The Irish borders issue — along with the "divorce bill" Britain has to pay for leaving the bloc, and the rights of EU citizens affected by Brexit — are key obstacles slowing negotiations between Britain and its estranged EU partners. EU leaders won't allow talks to move into critical trade areas until "significant progress" has been made on these issues.
May's government insists Britain will leave the customs union and single market when it leaves the EU. At that point, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will become a dividing line between Britain and the EU — and a new arrangement will be needed to monitor the flow of people and of goods.
Hogan argues this "hard border" won't be needed if Britain, at the very least, allows Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union. But his approach has been rejected by Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionists, a Northern Ireland party that is using its votes in Parliament to prop up May's minority government.
Foster told her party conference Saturday that the party would not back any agreement that "creates barriers" between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, in effect ruling out special status for Northern Ireland in the post-Brexit era.
EU leaders said Friday that Britain must show progress on the problem issues by Dec. 4 in time for a mid-December summit to allow the talks to progress to the next phase, which will involve substantive discussion of the future trading relationship between Britain and its former partners.