British ministers have clashed over the future of the Irish border, following pro-Leave MPs’ claims that the Treasury is engaged in “scaremongering” over the implications for the peace process of a “no deal” Brexit.
At a meeting of Theresa May’s cabinet Brexit committee on Wednesday, Philip Hammond, chancellor, and Amber Rudd, home secretary, were among the ministers who argued for the closest possible alignment between the UK and EU after Brexit to avoid the return of a “hard” Irish border.
Leaked government impact assessments showed that Northern Ireland would suffer more than most other regions in the event of a “no deal” exit.
But before the meeting, one pro-Brexit minister said the Treasury had been “scaremongering” about a possible return of strife to Northern Ireland, to push Mrs May towards a “soft” Brexit and possible extension of a customs union.
“There are people saying that because the Northern Ireland question is insuperable, you have to have common standards and full alignment,” said the minister. “It’s absolute rubbish.”
Britain’s border with Ireland will become an external border with the EU and its single market after Brexit, but the UK government has yet to spell out how it will avoid imposing customs infrastructure, beyond suggesting that there is a technological solution.
Pro-Brexit ministers on the 11-member cabinet committee, including foreign secretary Boris Johnson and environment secretary Michael Gove, have argued that technology and “trusted trader” schemes can be deployed to avoid the need for a hard Irish border.
But the dilemma of how to avoid a hard border, while at the same time achieving Mrs May’s objective of leaving the EU single market and customs union, is seen by some ministers as a major obstacle to a Brexit deal.
Damian Green, Mrs May’s former deputy, has referred to the problem as “Schrödinger’s border”, a reference to the thought experiment by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger featuring a cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead.
The Brexit committee met for two-and-a-half hours on Wednesday, for talks that focused on Northern Ireland but also touched on future immigration rules for EU citizens.
The prime minister’s allies said that all ministers spoke on Wednesday. The committee will meet again Thursday to discuss Brexit-related security issues.
One person briefed on Wednesday’s meeting said: “There was no breakthrough on Northern Ireland, more that they needed to think about it some more.”
Downing Street played down expectations that the two meetings would lead to an early pronouncement by Mrs May about what Britain hopes to achieve as its “end state relationship” with the EU.
Senior EU figures see Northern Ireland as the single biggest risk in Brexit talks, and Mrs May is being urged to give greater clarity on a fragile compromise reached before Christmas on the Irish border.
Officials in Brussels have warned that unless Britain sets out details on its preferred “deep and special partnership” in the coming weeks, then the remaining 27 EU member states will simply produce negotiating guidelines for a limited “Canada-style”, third-country trade deal.
Meanwhile, Ireland is focused on securing watertight legal guarantees from the UK on the border issue. But Irish ministers also see the need for extra time to ensure “practical” solutions can be found, especially relating to customs arrangements.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, has said that a minimum five-year transition period will be required after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.
The Brexit negotiations cabinet committee is finely balanced, with four strongly pro-Remain ministers: Mr Hammond, home secretary Amber Rudd, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington and business secretary Greg Clark. Karen Bradley, the new Northern Ireland secretary, also backed Remain in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.
Four committee members campaigned for Leave: Mr Johnson, Mr Gove, trade secretary Liam Fox and Brexit secretary David Davis. Gavin Williamson, the new defence secretary, voted Remain but has recently backed the Brexiters.
Mrs May is seen as having the casting vote.
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