Theresa May has been given a stark warning that her Brexit red lines will inevitably cause friction in trade between the UK and EU.
The Prime Minister chaired a meeting of Cabinet to approve her Brexit plans and met European Council president DonaldTusk for talks in Downing Street ahead of a keynote address on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
But ahead of Mrs May’s Friday speech, Mr Tusk hit out at her Brexit “red lines” and defended the EU’s position in the row over the Irish border.
But he acknowledged that Mrs May’s position – that the UK will leave the single market and customs union – did mean that “substantive negotiations” could take place.
Ahead of his trip to Downing Street, Mr Tusk used a speech in Brussels to pour cold water on Mrs May’s hopes of achieving a Brexit deal which will allow trade to be “as frictionless as possible”.
Mr Tusk warned: “There can be no frictionless trade outside of the customs union and the single market.
“Friction is an inevitable side-effect of Brexit by nature.”
He also defended a draft legal text of the withdrawal agreement produced by the European Commission, which has been met by an angry response by Mrs May.
The Prime Minister strongly rejected parts of the text regarding the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland, which she said would “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK” by creating a border down the Irish Sea.
Mr Tusk said he was “absolutely sure that all the essential elements of the draft” would be accepted by the 27 remaining EU members and stressed that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had the support of the bloc’s leaders.
He said the UK Government’s decision to rule out membership of the single market and customs union had been acknowledged “without enthusiasm and without satisfaction”.
“One of the possible negative consequences of this kind of Brexit is a hard border on the island of Ireland,” Mr Tusk said.
“The EU wants to prevent this scenario and, if no other solution is found, the proposal (is) to establish a common regulatory area comprising the Union and the UK in respect of Norther Ireland.”
He said he wanted to know if the UK Government had a better idea that would be “as effective in preventing a hard border”.
At their meeting in Number 10, Mr Tusk said “I’m not happy” with the Government’s red lines, but told Mrs May: “After your decision on no customs union and no single market, it’s some kind of breakthrough and we can start our substantive negotiations immediately.”
At a special meeting of Cabinet in 10 Downing Steet, ministers were given 30 minutes to read the latest draft of Mrs May’s speech before a two-hour discussion.
They were given the speech in paper form and required to leave the texts behind when they left.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Cabinet ministers held a detailed and positive discussion and agreed that the speech would represent a real step forward in negotiations.
The spokesman declined to comment on whether any ministers had suggested amendments to any elements of the speech, but said work continues on finalising the text.
Mrs May told the special Cabinet meeting that her aim was to “secure an ambitious economic partnership with the EU, which is in the interests of both the UK and European Union”.
Responding to Mr Tusk’s comments about the impossibility of frictionless trade outside the single market, the PM’s spokesman said: “Given the size of the UK as a market place for the EU, it is in the interests of both sides to reach an agreement”.