The row over the UK’s post-Brexit border with Ireland intensified today as politicians from both countries set out contrasting views just weeks before a crunch summit.
The UK is pushing for phase one of the Brexit negotiations to be concluded at a meeting in Brussels in December – including the issue of how to operate the Northern Ireland/Ireland border.
But in an interview with The Observer on Sunday, Ireland’s EU Commissioner warned Dublin would “continue to play tough to the end” over the issue as he called on Theresa May to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union in order to prevent a hard border.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox doubled down on the UK’s position, repeating that the UK would be leaving the single market and customs union after Brexit – but insisting there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland.
Fox added that it was impossible to fully solve the Irish border issue until the nature of the trade deal between the UK and the EU was completed – something which won’t happen unless Ireland’s government give the go ahead in December.
Speaking on Sky News, Fox said: “We can’t get a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state and until we get into discussions with the European Union on the end state that will be very difficult.
“The quicker that we can do that the better.
“We’re still in the position where the European Union doesn’t want to do that, and we’re getting quite close now to 2018 when we’ll be talking about ‘next year when we leave the European Union’ so for all the reasons, international as well as European, I think we have to get there faster than we’re doing at the present time.”
In his interview with the Observer, Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan said if the UK or Northern Ireland stayed in the Single Market or customs union it would solve the border issue instantly.
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.
“First, the best possible FTA with the EU will fall far short of the benefits of being in the single market.
“This fact is simply not understood in the UK. Most real costs to cross-border business today are not tariffs – they are about standards, about customs procedures, about red tape.
“These are solved by the single market, but not in an FTA.”
Any attempt to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union, and therefore effectively moving the UK border back to mainland Britain, would be strongly opposed by the DUP.
The pro-Union party wields enormous influence in Westminster as its 10 MPs prop up the Conservative government.
At the DUP’s party conference in Belfast this weekend, its Westminster leader Nigel Dodds told activists: “Make no mistake - for us the integrity of the United Kingdom is non-negotiable.”
He added: “If the EU wants to insist on border check points on the island of Ireland that is a matter for them. There will be no internal UK border in the Irish Sea.