BRUSSELS Britain believes a post-Brexit free trade deal with the European Union would ease problems that its withdrawal from the EU will create on the Irish border, London's Northern Ireland minister said on Wednesday.
Speaking to Reuters after meeting EU officials and lawmakers in Brussels, James Brokenshire echoed calls from Dublin and the EU for Brexit negotiations to ensure a new EU external land border across the island of Ireland would remain "frictionless" to avoid disrupting peace in the troubled British province.
Negotiations will not start until Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggers Britain's withdrawal some time this month but Brokenshire said he had been assured of understanding in Europe of the significance of preserving a 19-year-old peace deal under which people and goods now cross unimpeded across the border.
For travelers, he stressed the importance of an arrangement between London and Dublin dating back to Irish independence nearly a century ago, and the fact that EU member Ireland is, like Britain, not in the bloc's Schengen passport-free zone.
Asked about the potential disturbance to trade once Britain leaves the EU's single market as May has said it will do, Brokenshire said London was open to deals on the EU customs union rules that could ease the flow of goods across the island.
Were the EU to agree to British proposals of a comprehensive free trade agreement, that would address Irish economic issues:
"We're very clear on having a desire to have that free trade agreement," Brokenshire said. "I think that that is the best way to facilitate trade and business and to support the economy on the island of Ireland. That ability for businesses to be able to conduct their work in that integrated way is an important part."
But EU leaders are reluctant to agree to the sweeping free trade deal May wants if, as she also wants, Britain ceases to accept free immigration from the EU or EU judicial supervision.
Businesses on both sides of the Irish border fear disruption if EU rules apply in the south but not the north, adding to fears of a resurgence in militant violence, some of it linked to organized crime, if physical border controls were reintroduced.
Brussels officials say they would like to start talks on the Irish issue early in negotiations but are reluctant to open talks on trade in general before London agrees to other EU demands, including settling its outstanding bills to the Union.
Brokenshire declined to comment on whether negotiations on the Irish issue and the trade deal should be run in parallel.
Asked whether efforts to ensure an open border on Ireland could mean obstacles for people or goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, he ruled that out:
"The concept that we would creating a new border across the Irish Sea is absolutely not what we are talking about," he said.
(Editing by Dominic Evans)