Irish warning for May: Change course or risk Brexit chaos
Dublin: Ireland's European commissioner has urged Theresa May to change her Brexitplans dramatically to prevent a mounting crisis over the Irish border from derailing her hopes of an EU trade deal.
The threat of a hard Irish border has emerged as the major obstacle to the prime minister's aim of securing the green light for Brexit trade talks at a crucial summit only weeks away. She has effectively been handed just days to give stronger guarantees over the issue.
Phil Hogan, the EU's agriculture commissioner, told the Observer that it was a "very simple fact" that remaining inside the single market and customs union, or allowing Northern Ireland to do so, would end the standoff.
Hogan warned there was "blind faith" from some UK ministers that Britain would secure a comprehensive Brexit free trade deal. He warned that Ireland would "continue to play tough to the end" over its threat to veto trade talks until it had guarantees over the border.
"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. 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 on Sunday 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."
The Irish government wants a written guarantee that there will be no hard border with Northern Ireland, something Dublin believes can only be achieved, in effect, by keeping the region within the single market and customs union. However, the Democratic Unionist party, whose support is propping up May's government, warned on Saturday it would never accept a post-Brexit deal that would effectively see a customs border pushed back to the Irish Sea. May has repeatedly made clear Britain will leave the single market and customs union.
The Irish crisis came as Britain's former EU ambassador, Sir Ivan Rogers, warned May's Brexit strategy was "an accident waiting to happen". Speaking after a speech at Hertford College, Oxford, he said completing the Brexit process was "guaranteed" to take a decade. He said that the prime minister's unrealistic hopes of securing a bespoke trade deal meant a car crash in the next few months was "quite likely".
"The internal market is an extraordinarily complex international law construct that simply doesn't work in a way that permits the type of options that the current government is pushing for," he said.
"So there is an accident waiting to happen ... and it is going to happen because the other side is going to put on a table a deal which looks broadly like a Canada or a Korea deal."
Hogan warned Britain may struggle to keep the 59 trade deals it now has through the EU on the same terms. "The UK would be running to stand still," he said. Ministers are under mounting pressure to come clean over the extent of economic damage.