BERLIN (AP) — Britain’s foreign secretary said that securing an orderly Brexit is “of paramount importance” as he visited Germany on Wednesday, and insisted the UK can leave the European Union on March 29 as planned if a compromise deal is found.
Jeremy Hunt was meeting officials in Berlin ahead of Prime Minister Theresa May’s trip to Brussels later Wednesday for talks with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. May is seeking changes to Britain’s withdrawal agreement after British lawmakers resoundingly rejected it last month, but the EU insists negotiations won’t be reopened.
The stalemate has raised fears of Britain leaving without a divorce deal in place at the end of March, an outcome that could cause severe economic disruption. It has also raised the possibility of London seeking to delay its departure to wrap up negotiations.
“An orderly departure from the EU is of paramount importance,” Hunt said in a speech to the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a thinktank linked to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party.
“In the vital weeks ahead, standing back and hoping that Brexit solves itself will not be enough,” he said.
After highlighting Germany’s close post-war ties with Britain, Hunt said that “if these negotiations go wrong, then there is a risk that we poison relations between both sides in a way that would be profoundly damaging.”
U.K. lawmakers’ objections center on a provision for the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the Irish border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
May wants to change the deal’s phrasing to make sure that a provision to ensure an open Irish border after Brexit would only apply temporarily. The EU refuses to budge, at least as far as changing the 585-page legally binding Brexit agreement is concerned.
Hunt insisted that a “simple and important change” is needed to the Irish backstop and that “this is really the only way through the current situation.” He said that, if a compromise is reached, “I think we can reach that March 29 deadline.”
Juncker said on Tuesday that “if the British ask for a delay, to leave not on March 29 but later, no one in Europe will want to stand in the way,” but if Britain is still a member when European Parliament elections are held in late May it will have to participate in the vote.