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May urged to keep UK in European free trade area by EU Commissioner

By John Downing

A Republic of Ireland EU Commissioner has directly challenged Prime Minister Theresa May to reverse her decision to take the UK out of the European free trade area as a central part of Brexit.

Phil Hogan urged her to use a landmark speech she will make in Florence this Friday to state that Britain will stay inside the EU customs union after Brexit becomes a reality in 2019.

The Agriculture Commissioner says this is what British business wants from Brexit and it would also go a long way towards resolving Irish border and trade dilemmas.

"She must reflect very carefully on all of the representations that have been made to her in relation to business and trade with the European Union.

"It is in the interests of the UK business community and employment that we have good trading arrangements with the biggest market at their disposal, which is the other 27-member states of the European Union," he said.

"To achieve that in a frictionless way, it means that we have to have the United Kingdom reconsider their position in respect of the customs union.

"This not only will help trading relationships between the EU and UK, but would also help us enormously in dealing with the issue of a 'soft Brexit' and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

"So, I would hope that common sense and pragmatism will prevail on the part of the British Government to remain in the customs union in the future and resolve many of the difficult issues by this policy change," Mr Hogan said.

British diplomats have trailed Friday's speech by Mrs May as an important occasion.

But up to now, she has steadfastly stuck to her statement last October that Britain's break with the EU in March 2019 will be total - including leaving the border-free single market and the internal free trade area known as the customs union.

Experts insist that these moves, and especially the United Kingdom quitting the customs union, would make a 'hard border' between Ireland north and south inevitable.

They say it also makes trade tariffs between Ireland and the UK unavoidable.

Commissioner Hogan has also backed the idea of a European Union Finance Minister to closely coordinate economic and finance policies for the 27 member states.

But he said a directly-elected EU President is not wanted right now.

Mr Hogan said a strengthened role for a European Finance Commissioner, as proposed by EU Commissioner Jean Claude Juncker last Wednesday, should happen soon, bringing a better response to financial crises.

But he said the other idea pushed again by President Juncker, while desirable in the longer term, is not wanted at present.

The Irish Commissioner's call on Mrs May will intensify pressure from the Remain side who want a so-called 'soft Brexit'.

But she is also under pressure from the hardline Leave advocates.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has published a plan about the United Kingdom after Brexit which included an insistence on leaving the customs union.

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