The negotiating deadlock in the talks on Brexit has been branded a “car crash” by a former Northern Ireland secretary in Britain’s upper house.
Labour’s Peter Hain asked why anyone was surprised by Monday’s negotiating “car crash” in Brussels after the Democratic Unionist Party refused to accept proposals on a customs border.
“Unionists were quite legitimately always going to insist that they could not be put in a status distinct from the rest of the UK,” he said.
To maintain the border as open as it has been “alignment would be needed on trade, customs, and regulation”.
The answer, Mr Hain suggested, was to apply that alignment across the UK, “then the problem is solved”.
Brexit minister Martin Callanan told him: “We are leaving the customs union. We are leaving the single market and Northern Ireland will be leaving them with us.”
He said there was much agreement between the UK and EU on proposals to address the “unique circumstances” of the border in the light of Brexit.
“We remain firmly committed to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
British prime minister Theresa May’s crunch withdrawal talks with the EU in Brussels on Monday ended without agreement after the DUP refused to accept proposals which would have shifted the North’s customs border to the Irish Sea, in order to maintain a soft border with the Republic of Ireland.
Independent House of Lords member Hugh Dykes said to laughter: “See how grateful the DUP are for the £1bn of taxpayers’ money to keep Mrs May in power without any real mandate.”
He warned that Brexit was becoming a “total disaster” and that Ms May must “save our country’s future and the precious Anglo-Irish agreement”.
Mr Callanan said he did not agree and that the British government had to respect the referendum result.
Former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said a lot of the problems on Monday stemmed from people “leaking inaccurate accounts of what was in the government’s paper” and not making clear that proposals for some form of regulatory alignment were “heavily conditioned and of very limited application”.
If that information had become public earlier, things would have gone “much more smoothly”, he said.
Meanwhile, a former Foreign Office chief has warned about the damaging impact on UK trade of leaving the EU’s single market and customs union.
Brian Kerr of Kinlochard, the architect of the Article 50 process for leaving the EU, said there was still time to step back from the cliff-edge.
“We haven’t crossed the Rubicon,” he told the House of Lords. “It’s still up to us.”
He said the easiest way to solve the current problems over trade arrangements post-Brexit would be to “re-interpret what Brexit means” and avoid the damage to trade which would be incurred by leaving the single market and customs union.
Notification under Article 50 that Britain wants to leave the EU was not an irrevocable act, he said in a debate on trade and customs policy.
“As more and more inconvenient facts emerge, as the costs of leaving the EU become clearer and clearer, it’s important people understand that the people of this country have the right to say we should take back the prime minister’s March letter,” said Mr Kerr.
“We are still free to choose not to move to a colonial status in 2019, not to move to stormy waters in 2021.”
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