No final answer to Irish border question until 'end state' known, says Liam Fox
Resolving the issue of Northern Ireland's border after leaving the European Union cannot be completed until trade talks with Brussels have progressed, Liam Fox said as Dublin warned it could veto the next stage of Brexit negotiations unless there is movement on the dispute.
International Trade Secretary Dr Fox said a final position could not be reached until it was known what the "end state" of the UK-EU relationship after Brexit would be.
But an Irish minister indicated trade talks could be held up unless firm guarantees on the border are given by Prime Minister Theresa May.
Dublin has put fresh pressure on the Government to accept a solution which would see either the whole of the UK or just Northern Ireland remain in the single market and customs union as a deadline in the Brexit process approaches.
Theresa May has been given until December 4 to come up with further proposals on issues including the border, the Brexit divorce bill and citizens' rights if European leaders are to give the green light to moving on to the next phase of negotiations covering the future trading relationship between the UK and Brussels.
Dr Fox said: "We don't want there to be a hard border but the UK is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market"
He told Sky News's Sunday with Niall Paterson: "We have always had exceptions for Ireland, whether it's in our voting rights, our rights of residence in the UK, we have always accepted a certain asymmetry and that will have to be part of whatever agreement we come to with the European Union but we can't come to a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state.
"And until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult, so the quicker that we can do that the better and we are still in a position where the EU doesn't want to do that."
He blamed the European Commission's "obsession" with forging a closer union for the delays in the Brexit talks, which the UK hopes will move on to discussing trade after a meeting of EU leaders on December 14-15.
"I think the European Union countries need to consider the welfare and the economic prosperity of their people as opposed to the obsession of the commission about the concept of ever closer union." he said.
Irish European affairs minister Helen McEntee a cknowledged that some of the final details would have to be dealt with in the next phase of Brexit talks but the UK must come forward with further proposals now to achieve the aim of maintaining a soft border.
Progress on to phase two of the negotiations can only happen if all 27 leaders of the remaining EU countries agree "sufficient progress" has been made on the first set of issues.
Ms McEntee told Channel 4 News: " We cannot say that there is sufficient progress on the Irish issue when there has not been.
"Theresa May's speech in Florence was very welcome, the commitment to no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland is welcome.
"However if all of the options that we feel can make that possible have been taken off the table then we need them to produce something else that will give us confidence, moving into phase two, that this can actually be achieved. To date this has not happened.
"But obviously I would hope, we need to be optimistic, that negotiations can continue before the December council meeting and that we can see some solution to this."
Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, a member of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael party, told BBC's Sunday Politics she was "troubled" by Dr Fox's comments, adding: "I hope that the UK is not holding the Irish situation to ransom in these negotiations, it is far too serious and far too critical."
Ireland's European Commission member Phil Hogan said it was a "very simple fact" that "if the UK or Northern Ireland remained in the EU customs union, or better still the single market, there would be no border issue".
He told The Observer: "I continue to be amazed at the blind faith that some in London place in theoretical future free trade agreements.
"First, the best possible FTA with the EU will fall far short of being in the single market.
"This fact is simply not understood in the UK."
A ny arrangement which appeared to give Northern Ireland a separate status would be strongly resisted by the DUP, whose 10 MPs are effectively keeping Mrs May in Downing Street after she lost her majority in the general election.
Speaking on ITV's Peston On Sunday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said he was worried about Dr Fox's comments and said the option of remaining in the customs union and single market should remain on the table.
"I think the one thing that we don't want to do is jeopardise any movement quickly, because we need movement to enable us to get into the proper trade negotiations.
"So I'm hoping that isn't a Downing Street sanctioned statement that's he's made."
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said that unless progress on to the next phase is made in December "we are rapidly going to run out of time" for a transitional deal to be put in place.
"I don't think it means that the world has ended but I do think it's a setback," she said.
The Scottish Government's Brexit minister Mike Russell said if Dr Fox's comments were "an authorised intervention" then the possibility of progress was "receding fast".