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The UK’s Brexit minister has rejected EU warnings that Northern Ireland may need to remain in Europe’s single market and customs union after Brexit, saying the government will not accept any solution to the border issue that threatens Britain’s “constitutional and economic integrity”.
Speaking after two days of Brexit negotiations in Brussels that laid bare the gulf that remains on key divorce issues, David Davis said that “frank discussions” had been had with the European Commission on Ireland, while insisting that the question will only be solved once talks begin on a future EU-UK relationship.
His comments were a response to warnings from Brussels of the difficulties in avoiding a hard Irish border if Northern Ireland does not stay within the single market and customs union.
The European Commission on Wednesday circulated an update on negotiations, seen by the Financial Times, which concluded that the avoidance of “regulatory divergence” on the island of Ireland was “essential” to protect the peace process. This would mean keeping the province firmly in-line with single market and customs union rules, the paper stated.
“We respect the European Union desire to protect the legal order of the single market and customs union, but that cannot come at cost to the constitutional and economic integrity” of the UK, Mr Davis said.
The minister reiterated the UK’s position that it was determined to avoid “physical infrastructure” at the Irish border. He said that “specific solutions are needed” to the border question but that this “cannot amount to creating a new border within our United Kingdom”.
Mr Davis was speaking alongside Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, who indicated that the two days of talks this week had not led to any breakthroughs on outstanding issues such as Britain’s exit bill, although some further progress was made on the sensitive question of citizens’ rights.
On the Irish border, Mr Barnier said that both sides had to ensure a common interpretation of the consequences of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and the Anglo-Irish common travel area.
“This should lead us to identify the technical and legal solution necessary [to avoid] a hard border,” Mr Barnier said.
More generally, Mr Barnier said that talks over the past two days had focused on “deepening and clarification”, while stressing that negotiators would work “as intensively as needed” in a bid to advance ahead of the December summit at which the EU may agree to open talks on Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
Still, he warned that EU leaders were prepared to push back the opening of future relationship talks for as long as necessary until “real and sincere” progress was made on all key divorce issues.
If that progress was not made, “then we will continue and delay the opening of the discussions on the future”, Mr Barnier said, adding that this would also delay talks on a post-Brexit transition period.