Border fears will push UK towards softer Brexit - Hogan
The complexities of the Irish Border question will push the UK towards a softer Brexit approach, EU Commissioner Phil Hogan believes.
He said the Democratic Unionist Party could turn the tide in favour of a soft Brexit.
But the UK has already said it wants out of the single market, and has hinted it will pull out of the customs union, which would require controls at UK-EU borders.
"If the UK maintains its present position, we are faced with a hard Brexit and a hard Border - and there's no ifs and buts about that," Mr Hogan warned.
"I take some positive signal that the United Kingdom is keeping its options open on the customs union," said Mr Hogan, who holds the agriculture portfolio until his term ends in 2019.
"I would hope that it can be persuaded, during the negotiations, that if it is genuinely interested in a soft Brexit in the context of the island of Ireland, that it will stay in the customs union and remove a lot of the difficulties that would inevitably emerge."
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Hogan said he believed there was an increasing chance of a soft Brexit, as long as British and Northern Irish politicians pushed for it.
He said the UK needed to show "flexibility" and had a "major responsibility" to live up to the statements about wanting a seamless Border on the island of Ireland.
"The statements before the election were disappointing, but I think reality is now dawning," Mr Hogan said, pointing to comments made by British Chancellor Philip Hammond in favour of a business-friendly Brexit, including open borders on the island of Ireland.
He added: "I was very heartened by the change of tone by the Democratic Unionist Party, between the assembly elections in Northern Ireland and the recent British general election, where it included in its manifesto for the first time a recognition that staying in the customs union could resolve a lot of the Border issues."
Mr Hogan said the DUP could "do a lot to demonstrate its seriousness about representing the electorate of Northern Ireland" by following through on this point.
And he called on Sinn Féin to reverse its century-long policy of abstention and take up its seven seats in Westminster.
"Sinn Féin has an opportunity of exercising some political weight in Westminster if it was in a position to take up its seats and represent nationalists properly in Northern Ireland," he said.
The future of the Border depends on what kind of post-Brexit trade arrangements are agreed with the UK - which won't be tackled until later in the Brexit talks, most likely next year.
The UK wants to start talks on a trade deal as soon as possible, but has been warned that progress must first be made on citizens' rights and its EU budget contributions, as well as assurances on the Border, common travel area and peace process.
Mr Hogan said there was "no way" of doing a trade deal by the end of March 2019, the date the UK is due to leave the EU, and that a full free trade deal would take "a number of years".
"There is a lack of knowledge on the part of the UK government about how trade negotiations work because they haven't negotiated a trade agreement for 43 years," Mr Hogan said.
"There is no chance of getting a free trade agreement fully agreed, in all of its complexity and chapters, by the end of the two-year period."
A recent wide-ranging trade deal with Canada took more than seven years to negotiate. And the EU has been in trade talks with the South American Mercosur bloc for almost 15 years, while an EU-US trade deal sputtered out after three years of talks.
He said he hoped both sides could agree on a "common sense" transitional deal, where the UK would continue to apply EU rules post-Brexit, at least until a trade deal is finalised.