SHANGHAI (Reuters) - British trade minister Liam Fox said on Tuesday it was “impossible” for him to say if a Brexit deal could be reached with the European Union this month or next, but Britain wanted an agreement, and a deal is better than no deal.
Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a trade fair in Shanghai, Fox said it was more important to get the right agreement than the quickest one.
Asked whether a Brexit deal would be struck this month or next, Fox said: “That’s impossible for me to say”.
“But the prime minister says we are 95 percent there. We want to close that gap. We want there to be an agreement. We have always said it is better to have a deal than no deal,” he said.
The earlier Britain got an agreement the better for all as it would give better clarity, in particular to British businesses but also to British citizens, on what their future rights would be, Fox said.
“So, the quicker we get agreement the better, but in the end it is more important to get the right agreement than the quickest agreement.”
With just five months until Britain is due to leave the EU, talks are mired in a disagreement over an Irish “backstop” - an insurance policy to ensure there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland - between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland - if a future trading relationship is not in place in time.
“We have got some issues to deal with on the Irish border still and we have made it very clear that we believe that no part of the United Kingdom should be treated differently from any other part. We simply have to work our way through that,” Fox said.
“We think there are answers to the practical issues involved.”
Ireland is willing to examine ways in which a “backstop” to keep the Irish border open after Brexit could be reviewed so long as it does not permit Britain to unilaterally walk away from it, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Monday.
Fox said he thought problems to getting a deal were surmountable, including getting it through parliament.
“I think the hurdles are surmountable if we have the political interest and I think that if there is an agreement between the UK government and the other EU 27 governments it would be very hard for parliament to vote that down in favour of no deal. I think voters would find that difficult.”
A survey for Channel 4 published on Monday showed Britons would vote to stay in the European Union if there were another ballot as those in the biggest “leave”-voting areas change their minds.
Brexiteers argue May’s predecessor, David Cameron, said during the referendum campaign that the decision would be final and there would be no re-runs. They say May should get on with delivering Brexit.
Fox, a prominent Brexiteer, said there had already been a referendum.
“We don’t have a second general election because those who didn’t win didn’t like the results. Democracy is democracy.”
Reporting by John Ruwitch; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Darren Schuettler