Britain can only avoid a hard Brexit if it reaches a deal with the EU to resolve the Irish backstop issue, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in Berlin during a speech on the two countries’ friendship.
“This is really the only way through the current situation,” he said in his speech at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in the German capital, adding that pushing back the Brexit deadline would leave both the UK and EU in “paralysis”.
Hunt also talked about how the UK and Germany’s relationship transcended all treaties and was “based on something infinitely more important and durable”.
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 was 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.
Moments in history ‘transcend Brexit’
In an impassioned speech, Hunt referenced historical moments, saying he thought of the Berlin Blockade, which arose from an attempt by the Soviet Union in 1948-49 to force Western Allied powers to abandon their jurisdictions in West Berlin when he landed in Tegel airport.
He also mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago this year, and how it reminded people “never to take liberty for granted”.
He said these moments in history transcend people, nations and “transcend Brexit as well, however absorbing or challenging that may seem”.
“Whatever treaties or organizations our two countries may join or leave, our friendship is based on something infinitely more important and durable,” said Hunt.
“Britain and Germany cherish the same freedoms, defend the same values, respect the same fundamental laws and face the same dangers. We are bound together not simply by institutions but by the beliefs that inspired the creation of these institutions: democracy, openness, equality before the law regardless of race, class, gender or sexuality.”
Hunt added that trading relationships “have always been the first link between countries and they act as the foundation of all other relations”.
“So none of us should have any doubt that failing to secure a ratified withdrawal agreement between Britain and the EU would be deeply damaging, politically as well as economically,” he said.
Hunt said that in the “vital” weeks ahead, “standing back and hoping that Brexit solves itself will not be enough. The stakes are just too high.
“We must all do that we can to see that a deal is reached,” he added.
‘People want to move on’
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 neighbor’s in Europe.”
May and the other 27 EU leaders approved a Brexit withdrawal agreement at a summit on November 25th last year, but the British leader’s own parliament rejected it on January 15th.
Since then, May and her ministers have repeatedly met EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and their negotiator Michel Barnier to urge them to reopen the text to find a way to appease Eurosceptic MPs