Britain's Brexit secretary David Davis has said that the backstop solution to avoid a hard border will not include anything that will mean different arrangements for Northern Ireland than for the rest of the UK.
Attending a hearing of the House of Commons Committee on exiting the EU, Mr Davis said the British government’s position was that when the so-called backstop solution was agreed and inserted into the treaty governing Britain’s departure, it would not require Northern Ireland to be treated any differently.
The Brexit secretary was asked by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson MP if it was still the British government’s position that, if there was an insistence on the backstop solution of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU customs union, that "it will not include either different arrangements for Northern Ireland or indeed total alignment for the UK."
Mr Davis responded: "That’s right."
During a 90-minute exchange with the committee, Mr Davis said he regarded June as an "artificial deadline" for agreement on what the backstop would look like when converted into a binding legal agreement.
Mr Davis told the committee chair Hilary Benn MP that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar himself would prefer what he called "a good agreement" by October, rather than any deal in June.
He also insisted that the best way to avoid a hard border was through a free trade agreement, and not through the backstop, also known as Option C.
"We’ll make progress as fast as we can on this," he told the committee.
"There are some hard issues as well all know, but our undertaking is plain. We will … avoid a hard border at all costs, we will underpin the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, and all the elements of it, and we will come up with a mechanism which will enable that to happen at the border.
We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
"We have said all along, and the [European] Council agrees, and Mr Varadkar agrees, that the best way to do that was with a … good free trade agreement, because that eliminates a lot of the issues from the beginning. Not all of them, but a lot of them."
Mr Davis repeated London’s view that the first draft of the Irish Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement as put forward by the EU Task Force in February, which declared that the territory of Northern Ireland would be considered part of the EU’s customs union territory, would lead to the "break up" of the United Kingdom.
The Irish Government has rejected this.
He also rejected the notion that the British government’s solutions (options A and B) to avoiding a hard border – namely a new customs "partnership" and a so-called "maximum facilitation" option, whereby the border is made as frictionless as possible through technology, trusted trader schemes, and some all-island solutions on agrifood – had been rejected by the EU, as reported by the Daily Telegraph last week.
Mr Davis said these were simply negotiating positions by the European Commission, and such opening positions were frequently prone to change.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU insisted that a good free trade agreement was in Ireland’s interests, and that it would "protect" the Irish economy.
Mr Davis outlined his belief that options A and B should be given equal weight in the Withdrawal Agreement when it is concluded, most likely in October.
The Irish Government and the EU have insisted that the treaty cannot include variable options, and that Option C, or the backstop, must alone be given full legal effect in the Withdrawal Agreement by way of the Irish protocol.
London effectively wants to bring forward as much detail as possible on the future trade agreement, including what Mr Davis calls "mutual recognition" of standards, in order to make backstop less and less likely.
Mr Davis accused unspecified individuals of wanting to use Option C in order to keep the UK in the single market.
"The thing to be aware of," he told the committee, "is that Option C in essence is a reserve parachute, a final backstop guarantee. Nobody sees that as the most desirable outcome. Everybody see the free trade agreement as the most desirable outcome, that is true across the board, maybe with the exception of one or two people who want to keep us in the single market at any price, but I don’t think there are many of them."
Davis insists post-Brexit border plans are workable
Earlier, Mr Davis played down suggestions that the government's border proposals had run into trouble.
Reports last week suggested that the EU had dismissed as unworkable both of the options put forward by Westminster, which would either see the UK collect customs tariffs on behalf of the EU or use technology to avoid delays at the border between Ireland and the UK.
The reports sparked speculation that the EU is trying to edge the UK into remaining in some form of customs union with the EU - something which Brexiteers regard as unacceptable, as it would prevent Britain from forging new trade deals elsewhere in the world.
David Davis rejected a suggestion by the chairman of the Commons Brexit Committee, Hilary Benn, that the UK solutions had been "emphatically" ruled out by Brussels, insisting that the EU was simply setting out an "opening position" in negotiations.
He told the committee that the technology to deliver a near frictionless border - including number-plate recognition, authorised economic operator systems and electronic pre-authorisation - already exists and the government has started talks with potential suppliers.
Mr Davis has also said that the motion put before Parliament in the autumn on the final Brexit agreement will be amendable.
He was questioned this morning by the Commons Exiting the European Union Committee.
Mr Davis said there could be debates in Parliament on the agreement "when it is clear but not signed".
As well as the "meaningful" vote on the deal, there will also be an implementation bill.
"My aim is to give the House as much time as I can to do all of those things, not just the one vote," he said.
Mr Davis said suggestions that Parliament was not being given enough time to debate Brexit were "at odds with reality".
He insisted there was "no absence of information" on the exit process.
The Brexit Secretary said it was "unlikely" there would be a no-deal outcome from the negotiations but there could be a "bare bones" agreement.
"I do not think no deal is a significant probability at all," he added.
Additional reporting: Joe Mag Raollaigh