LONDON (Reuters) - Finance minister Philip Hammond said on Wednesday he was confident Britain would negotiate a customs arrangement with the European Union that would allow for borders to be as frictionless as possible after Brexit.
Hammond was speaking hours before Prime Minister Theresa May officially starts the process of Britain leaving the European Union by triggering Article 50 of the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty.
“Everybody in the EU and the UK is going to go into this negotiation looking to protect their own interests,” Hammond said in an interview on BBC radio, answering a question about customs arrangements after Brexit.
“It is not in the interests of anybody on the continent of Europe to have lines of trucks. It is not in the interests of the millions of EU workers who spend their days producing goods to be sold in the UK.
“It is not in the interests of French farmers who produce fresh produce coming into the UK every day that there are lines of trucks. So I am very confident that we will not get an outcome that is a worst case outcome for everybody. That would be ridiculous.”
Hammond said Britain accepted that after Brexit it could no longer be a member of the European single market or a full member of the customs union, and that would have consequences.
“We understand that we can’t cherry pick. We can’t have our cake and eat it,” he said.
However, he said a customs arrangement could be negotiated that would make borders as frictionless as possible. He said this was “vitally important” for Northern Ireland, where the border with the Irish Republic will be the United Kingdom’s only land border with the EU.
“Nobody on either side of this discussion wants to see us having to return to the hard border of the old days,” he said, referring to past years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland when border posts were among many flashpoints.
Hammond was repeatedly pressed on what would happen if the two years of talks between Britain and the EU foreseen by Article 50 went by and no deal was reached, but he refused to be drawn.
“I am absolutely confident that we will negotiate a deal with the European Union,” he said.
He added that the British government had plans in place for day one after leaving the EU that took into account “a huge variety” of possible outcomes of the negotiations.
Hammond also signalled tough negotiations ahead on the issue of payments Britain would have to make to the EU during or even after Brexit, saying that he simply did not recognise “some of the very large numbers that have been bandied about in Brussels”.
“I am not surprised that they have been bandied about – this is after all a negotiation – and it is not surprising to me that our negotiating partners are setting out a very aggressive starting line for the discussion.”
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon and David Milliken; editing by Kate Holton