Key Brexit MP: ‘astonishing’ no EU relationship negotiated
Committee chairman Hilary Benn: ‘No deal is the worst possible deal you could imagine’
Hilary Benn: British ministers have “absolutely no answer” as to how a soft border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will be achieved. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
The chair of the UK parliament’s Brexit committee has said it is “astonishing” that despite being two-thirds of the way through negotiations there is still no future relationship negotiated with the EU.
Hilary Benn said there is a need to extend the Brexit transition period beyond two years and that “no deal is the worst possible deal you could imagine”.
Mr Benn, a Labour MP, was speaking at the official launch of DCU’s Brexit Institute on Thursday.
The institute has been carrying out and facilitating analysis of the major legal, political and economic challenges raised by Brexit for the past six months.
Mr Benn pointed out that it was 19 months since the referendum and there are only nine months to go until the end of the negotiations.
“We are two-thirds of the way through the process and yet we haven’t even yet started negotiating our future relationship with the European Union. It is frankly astonishing,” he said.
Mr Benn said he hoped the EU would ask itself how it “came to lose one of its most important member states”.
Current British ministers have “absolutely no answer” as to how a soft border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will be achieved “given that every other trade agreement in the world conducts border checks”.
Mr Benn said staying in the customs union was the “only solution” on the issue of the Border.
He said some British politicians talk casually about “the benefits of no deal”.
“Let me be clear, no deal is not better than a bad deal. No deal is the worst possible deal you could imagine.
“I simply do not think there is a majority in the House of Commons that would accept no deal. This is not just about trade and services, it is about the referendum’s impact on the Border, on the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and on the lives of the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic.”
In terms of the Belfast Agreement, he said “every one of us knows that nothing can be allowed to put that agreement at risk as Brexit unfolds”.
Asked whether Britain could rejoin the EU, Mr Benn said “in life, never say never”.
“Also speaking at the event, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said it is time for the UK to “provide clarity” on its future relationship with the EU.
“It is clear that the EU shares our desire to establish as close a partnership as possible with the UK. But we need to know unambiguously now, what kind of partnership the UK is seeking.
“It is time for the UK to provide clarity on what it wants, through confronting the hard choices it faces,” he said.
Herman van Rompuy, the first president of the European Council, said Brexit was “a sad surprise”.
“It [the European Union] is a peace project and Brexit has national sovereignty as a goal in itself. If the union falls apart, this is not guaranteed in none of the countries of the European Union,” he said.
Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern questioned UK Brexit minister David Davis’s understanding of the issues surrounding Brexit.
“David Davis is a very interesting character, I watched him yesterday . . . I continue to have my doubts does he understand this stuff,” he said.
Regarding the agreement reached on the Border, the former taoiseach said “it was a fudge”.
“I notice in the international press now over Christmas, while we are celebrating a bit, in fairness to the Taoiseach, he said people shouldn’t do that, but all the international press are calling it a provisional agreement.
“None of them are calling it an agreement. We’re still here calling it an agreement . . . the British are pumping that out, that’s where it’s coming from. I think we’re going to have to rerun all of that.”