BERLIN (AFP) – Britain can only avoid a hard Brexit on March 29 if it reaches a deal with the European Union (EU) to resolve the tricky Irish backstop issue, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said yesterday.
“This is really the only way through the current situation,” he said in a speech in Berlin, adding that pushing back the Brexit deadline would leave both the UK and EU in “paralysis”.
The infamous “Irish backstop” clause provides for Britain to remain in the EU customs union until a way is found – such as a future free trade deal – to ensure that Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland remains open.
Resolving the issue would allow the government to gain parliamentary support for the EU divorce deal and also guarantee the 1998 Belfast peace agreement, he predicted.
“If we can make that change, we are confident we can get the deal through” Parliament, he said on the day Prime Minister Theresa May headed back to Brussels to renew her quest to reopen the terms of the Brexit divorce.
Brexiteers in May’s own Conservative party see the backstop as a “trap” to keep Britain in a form of union indefinitely, and have demanded a time limit or a unilateral exit clause.
This would be seen in Brussels as a betrayal of EU member Ireland, and it has consistently got short shrift from EU officials.
Hunt, speaking on the question of a possible extension on Britain leaving the bloc, questioned whether that “really solves anything”.
“I think the last thing that people in the UK and indeed the rest of the EU want is Brexit paralysis with this issue hanging over Europe like a shadow,” he said.
“I think people want to move on and they want to demonstrate that we can have a Brexit that respects the referendum result but also that we remain best of friends with our neighbours in Europe.”
May and the other 27 EU leaders approved a Brexit withdrawal agreement at a summit on November 25 last year, but the British leader’s own Parliament rejected it on January 15.
Since then, May and her ministers have repeatedly met EU leaders and their negotiator Michel Barnier to urge them to reopen the text to find a way to appease eurosceptic MPs.