Top UK ministers: Brexit transition cannot be back door to staying in EU

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain needs a transition period to soften its exit from the European Union, but it cannot be used to stop Brexit, two senior ministers said on Saturday, signalling a truce between rival factions in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet.

May’s Brexit strategy has been the subject of open debate among her top team ever since a botched June election which weakened her authority and exposed differences of opinion over how Britain should manage its departure from the bloc.

However the outspoken pro-European Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and ardent Brexiteer trade minister Liam Fox looked to end the debate by setting out a joint position in a newspaper article.

“We believe a time-limited interim period will be important to further our national interest and give business greater certainty – but it cannot be indefinite; it cannot be a back door to staying in the EU,” Hammond and Fox wrote in a joint article for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Hammond had previously angered pro-Brexit colleagues and some voters by raising the prospect of an exit deal that saw little immediate change on issues like immigration when Britain leaves in March 2019, and which could last until 2022.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox speaks during an interview with Reuters at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, July 20, 2017.Pierre Albouy

Such an arrangement was criticised by euroskeptics as a betrayal of the swift Brexit they wanted, and has even raised fears the process would be stopped altogether.

A Union Flag umbrella is seen in front of the Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, in London, Britain, August 9, 2017.Hannah McKay

But the article, due to appear in Sunday’s newspaper, said that the government strategy was not being watered down and Britain would leave on schedule albeit with a transition period.

“We are both clear that during this period the UK will be outside the (EU) single market and outside the customs union and will be a ‘third-country’ not party to EU treaties,” they said.

However it also confirmed that immigration controls – one of the key issues for voters who backed Brexit – would not stop all EU workers coming to Britain.

“During this period our borders must continue to operate smoothly; goods bought on the internet must still cross borders; businesses must still be able to supply their customers across the EU, and our innovative, world-leading companies must be able to hire the talent they need, including from within the EU,” they said.

Reporting by William James; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Mary Milliken

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