Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has called on EU leaders to give an immediate green light to talks on post-Brexit trade relations, rather than insisting on waiting for a breakthrough over the Irish border.
Prime Minister Theresa May is battling to break the deadlock over the border after a proposed deal collapsed on Monday, with the clock ticking ahead of a crunch summit on December 14.
But Mr Johnson suggested that the thorny issue of customs controls on movements between Northern Ireland and the Republic can only be resolved in the context of wider negotiations on the EU’s post-Brexit relationship with the UK.
The EU insists that trade talks can begin only after “sufficient progress” has been made on the three key divorce issues of citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the UK’s financial settlement.
And Dublin has warned that unless the UK provides cast-iron guarantees that the border will remain open, it will not allow Brexit negotiations moving on to the second phase – including trade talks – before the end of the year.
The Democratic Unionists – who prop up the Government in Parliament – have insisted they will not sign up to a proposal for Northern Ireland to remain in “regulatory alignment” with the Republic once Britain has left the EU.
Meanwhile, reports suggest that leading Brexiteers within Mrs May’s Cabinet have voiced unease about her signing Britain up to any deal which would stop it diverging from EU regulations on issues like food safety, environmental protection and workplace rights after Brexit.
Speaking to reporters as he arrived for a Nato summit in Brussels, Mr Johnson said: “We will come up with a solution but the important thing is that that solution can only be discovered in the context of discussions on the end-state of the UK’s relations with the rest of the EU.
“We need to get on with those negotiations now, so all the more reason to get on with stage two of the negotiations.
“What I would say is that the best way to sort it out is to get on to the second phase of the negotiations, where all these difficult issues can be properly teased out, thrashed out and solved.”
In a clear sign that he was not budging from the central demands of last year’s Leave campaign, Mr Johnson said: “I think the important thing is that what we are going to do, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, is we are going to take back control of our borders, of our laws and UK cash contributions. That’s the way forward.”
Mrs May had expected to speak with DUP leader Arlene Foster on Tuesday in an attempt to resolve their differences but – in a possible sign of how intractable the issue has become – the call did not take place. It is not clear when they will next talk.
Mrs Foster has complained that her party was only shown the proposed text late on Monday morning, around the time the Prime Minister was sitting down to lunch in Brussels with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Mrs May insisted the talks in Brussels had made “good progress” and that she would be returning to the Belgian capital later in the week with a view to finalising an agreement on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal.
Some Conservative Brexiteers said she should be prepared to walk away from the negotiating table altogether if the EU refused to allow the negotiations to move on.
Former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith suggested the point was approaching “fairly fast” unless the EU was prepared to adopt a different course.
“We cannot go to trade arrangements at any price because that price will be paid in the sense of the kind of arrangement that we end up with that could be wholly intolerable,” he told the BBC.