British minister 'holding Border talks to ransom', says Irish MEP
Resolving the issue of the Border in Ireland after leaving the European Union cannot be completed until talks on a trade deal with Brussels have progressed, Britain's International Trade Secretary has warned.
Liam Fox said a final position could not be reached until it was known what the "end state" of the UK-EU relationship after Brexit would be, prompting Fine Gael MEP Mairéad McGuinness to claim he was holding the process to ransom.
Mr Fox's intervention came as the Government put fresh pressure on Britain to accept a solution that would see either the whole of the UK or just Northern Ireland remain in the single market and customs union as a deadline in the Brexit process approaches.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May has been given until December 4 to come up with further proposals on issues including the Border, the Brexit divorce bill and citizens' rights if European leaders are to give the green light to moving on to the next phase of negotiations.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has called for a written guarantee that there will be no return to a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic as a result of Brexit.
One way of achieving that would be for continued single market and customs union membership. This stance has been rejected by the UK.
Mr Fox said: "We don't want there to be a hard border, but the UK is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market."
He told Sky News's 'Sunday with Niall Paterson': "We have always had exceptions for Ireland, whether it's in our voting rights, our rights of residence in the UK, we have always accepted a certain asymmetry and that will have to be part of whatever agreement we come to with the European Union.
"But we can't come to a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state. And until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state, that will be very difficult.
"So the quicker that we can do that the better and we are still in a position where the EU doesn't want to do that."
Ms McGuinness told the BBC's 'Sunday Politics' that she was "troubled" by Mr Fox's comments.
"I hope that the UK is not holding the Irish situation to ransom in these negotiations, it is far too serious and far too critical," she said.
Ms McGuinness said that if Theresa May wanted the situation to remain the same post-Brexit, then "the only way to achieve that is to stay in the customs union and single market. That is the solution."
Meanwhile, European Commissioner Phil Hogan said it was a "very simple fact" that "if the UK or Northern Ireland remained in the EU customs union, or better still the single market, there would be no Border issue".
In a swipe at the British Government's approach to Brexit, he told the 'Observer': "I continue to be amazed at the blind faith that some in London place in theoretical future free trade agreements (FTAs).
"First, the best-possible such agreement with the EU will fall far short 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 in the single market, but not in an FTA."