David Davis forced into u-turn over Irish border deal

Brexit Secretary David Davis has been forced into a u-turn after claiming the deal struck last week to ensure the Irish border remains open after Brexit was 'not legally enforceable'.

He had to reverse his claim within 24 hours, saying the agreement that guarantees ‘full alignment’ between the UK and the EU was "much more than legally enforceable".

However, the Prime Minister cast further doubt on the nature of the deal just days before it is due to be signed off by EU leaders, saying it would be “off the table” if the next phase of talks in Brussels fail to produce a trade agreement.

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On Sunday, Mr Davis said the plans, thrashed out after days of last-minute wrangling between Downing Street, the Irish government and the DUP, were a "statement of intent".

His comments were branded "bizarre" by Irish ministers, which insisted an agreement that the UK will have "full alignment" with the EU on issues that impact on Northern Ireland was "binding".

Yesterday Mr Davis claimed his words had been "completely twisted".

He told LBC Radio: "What I actually said yesterday in terms was we want to protect the peace process, want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them, and I said this was a statement of intent which was much more than just legally enforceable.

"Of course it's legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement but even if that didn't happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless invisible border with Ireland."

Mr Davis went on: "What we're saying is this bit of it, the bit about the full alignment argument on the issues which affect the peace process in the Belfast Agreement, we would look to that anyway because one of our absolute underpinning aims is to ensure that Ireland and particularly the Northern Ireland peace process is not harmed.

"And what's most symbolic in that is the absence of a hard border, the absence of border posts and that sort of thing.

"And we are quite certain we can do that by technical and other means even if we end up without a deal with the European Union."

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Asked why he said the soft Irish border deal was a statement of intent, Mr Davis replied: "Because it's more than legally enforceable.

"In the event that the withdrawal agreement doesn't happen then we would still be seeking to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, that was the point. I was making the point it was much more than just in the treaty, it's what we want to do anyway."

At the weekly meeting of cabinet Mrs May thanked Mr Davis and officials for their work in the first phase of Brexit negotiations.

The PM's official spokesman said Mrs May told fellow ministers that voters believe "we're on our way".

Mrs May's spokesman added: "These negotiations have been conducted in good faith throughout and I don't think there should be any doubt about the goodwill with which we approach them."

Cabinet ministers, who have yet to discuss the type of post-Brexit relationship the government wants to have with the EU, will hold talks on the UK’s “end state” at their next meeting in a week’s time.

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that the joint report published last week by Mr Davis and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was "not legally binding".

But asked if it was therefore possible for either side to back down on it, he stressed that it was regarded in Brussels as "a deal between gentlemen" which was "fully backed and endorsed" by the UK Government.

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He noted that Mrs May and Mr Juncker had shaken hands on it.

"Formally speaking, the joint report is not legally binding because it is not yet the Article 50 Withdrawal Agreement.

"But we see the joint report of Michel Barnier and David Davis as a deal between gentlemen and it is the clear understanding that it is fully backed and endorsed by the UK Government.

"President Juncker had a meeting with Prime Minister May last Friday morning to ascertain that this is precisely the case. They shook hands.

"It is now for the European Council on December 15 to decide if 'sufficient progress' has been made, allowing the negotiations to proceed to their second phase."

Mr Schinas said that last Friday's agreement had "removed a big barrier" to progress but confirmed that nothing would be finally settled until the Withdrawal Agreement was signed.