‘Not possible’ to avoid hard border in Ireland

MPs scrutinising the Brexit negotiations have poured cold water on the Government’s aim to leave the EU’s single market and customs union while preventing a hard border with Ireland.

With divorce talks entering a crucial two weeks for the Prime Minister, the House of Commons’ Brexit committee has expressed huge doubts about the Government’s strategy.

In a new report, although not backed unanimously by the committee’s members, MPs warn they “do not currently see how it will be possible” to avoid a customs border on the island of Ireland, if the Government pushes ahead with its aim to leave the single market and customs union.

Ministers’ proposals for avoiding such a scenario are branded “untested and speculative” by the committee.

Their warning comes as the Irish border emerges as a critical hurdle in deadlocked negotiations, although one prominent Brexiteer member of the committee branded the report’s contents “old Remoaner arguments and fears”.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: Former Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, arrives to attend a press conference held by former shadow business secretary Angela Eagle in which Eagle announced her intention to challenge Jeremy Corbyn for leadership pf the Labour Party, on July 11, 2016 in London, England. Mr Corbyn has faced numerous frontbench resignations, but has said he would not betray the party members, who elected him last year, by standing down.

Image: Committee chair Hilary Benn branded Government plans ‘untested and speculative’

Theresa May is meeting with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday, when she hopes to strike an agreement on the key withdrawal issues of money, citizens rights and Ireland.

If progress is agreed, EU leaders will then sanction the second phase of Brexit talks at a key summit on 14/15 December.

But Ireland has recently demanded a written guarantee there will be no hard border before agreeing negotiations can move onto transition arrangements and trade talks, causing an extra headache for the Prime Minister.

Border

Video: A way to solve the Irish border question?

The Brexit committee also pushed the Government for greater clarity on other areas of the UK’s departure.

They are calling for both the EU and the Government to ensure an agreement on citizens’ rights is “ring-fenced” when reached, so that it is preserved even if no overall divorce deal is agreed.

And the MPs want ministers to publish a white paper on its proposed transition period as soon as possible after this month’s summit, as well as specific details of what the Government hopes for in a long-term EU-UK trade deal.

Their report also deems it unacceptable for Parliament to hold a promised vote on the final Brexit deal after the UK has already left the EU, a possibility Brexit Secretary David Davis raised in his evidence to the committee earlier this year.

David Davis

Image: David Davis will appear before the MPs next week

The committee’s chair, Labour MP Hilary Benn, said: “Our report concludes that we cannot at present see how leaving the customs union and the single market can be reconciled with there being no border or infrastructure.

“Even by their own admission, the Government’s proposals are untested and speculative, so it has yet to set out how no border can in practice be maintained with the UK outside the single market and the customs union.”

He added: “Businesses need certainty and reassurance to stop firms triggering contingency plans which could see activities and jobs move abroad.

“Ministers assured us that detailed arrangements for the implementation period could be published by March 2018. This deadline must be achieved.”

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg

Image: Committee member Jacob Rees-Mogg hit out at the ‘Remoaner’ views in the report

But Brexit-backing members of the committee pointed out the report was only agreed by those MPs who supported Remain at last year’s EU referendum, with five Leave-supporting MPs voting against its publication.

One of those, Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, told Sky News: “The report was carried entirely by the votes of members who wanted to remain in the EU.

“Inevitably it has wheeled out all the old Remoaner arguments and fears. It does not represent the positive view of Brexit that many people now take.”

The committee also revealed Mr Davis will be appearing in front of them again next Wednesday, after this week’s delivery to them of the Government’s sectoral analyses of Brexit’s impact on the UK economy.

The release was dogged by controversy, with Mr Davis accused of treating Parliament with contempt after he refused to hand over unredacted versions of the papers.