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Hilary Benn on granting a Brexit extension: Will the EU push the UK over a cliff edge?

Labour MP Benn is in Dublin today to meet with Simon Coveney, Drew Harris and others about Brexit progress.

Labour MP for Leeds Central Hilary Benn outside Westminster.
Labour MP for Leeds Central Hilary Benn outside Westminster.
Image: Aaron Chown

HILARY BENN, THE chair of the UK’s Brexit committee, has said that he hopes the EU will grant the UK another extension to secure a Brexit deal, and not “be the people to push the UK over the edge of the cliff”. 

When asked by TheJournal.ie whether Brexit had soured relations between the UK and Ireland, the Labour MP said that from his Brexit committee’s first visit to Dublin, shortly after being formed, the “huge impact” on Ireland was clear.

“We saw the enormous impact Brexit would have on Ireland, who watched the referendum happen, but played no part in it.”

During the Brexit committee’s visit to Dublin today, Benn and his colleagues have met with several Oireachtas committees, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

He said of his meetings today that the “overwhelming concern” has been about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

The risk of a no-deal Brexit has increased since Johnson assumed power as British Prime Minister following a leadership campaign where he pledged to “scrap the backstop”. Since being appointed to No 10, he’s called it the “anti-democratic backstop” and asked for its complete removal from the Withdrawal Agreement.

The EU has said that it cannot get rid of the backstop, as it ensures that a hard border will not reappear on the island of Ireland, and it was agreed to by the former UK government. The stalemate we’re in seems to be mainly over this issue, though hardline Brexiteers insist that the backstop is not the only problem with the Withdrawal Agreement.

“Everyone is waiting to see what the British proposals are,” Benn says. “But these issues are highly complex and time is very short. It’s taken a very long time to work these things out.”

“We don’t know precisely what the UK proposals are – it has to be an insurance policy for all circumstances. It’s very hard to sustain that arrangement after Brexit, and some checks will be required in the event of a no-deal Brexit – the Taoiseach has said that.

“There are very practical questions here,” he adds, adding that the problem on the border isn’t solved by a free trade agreement. “We looked at FTAs, and they all have checks on their borders.”

NO FEE HILARY BENN MP IBEC JB9 Source: JULIEN BEHAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Benn tabled a Bill in the final few days where the House of Commons was active before prorogation; that legislation legally compels UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to request that the Brexit deadline be pushed back three months at least if no deal is yet agreed.

This legislation was fast-tracked into law, meaning if Johnson can’t get a deal and refuses to request an extension, he’ll be breaking the law. Johnson has said that he’d rather be “dead in a ditch” than request another extension from the EU.

When asked whether Benn thought the EU would grant a third extension, if the UK requested it, Benn said: “I hope so, because question for the EU is: are they going to be the people who push the UK over the edge of the cliff?”

Parliament was prorogued on 10 September, after Benn’s bill had been passed into law, and after Johnson’s motion to call a general election failed to gather enough support.

If parliament hadn’t been prorogued, Benn said that MPs would be questioning the government on Operation Yellowhammer, the government’s “reasonable worst case scenario” documents on a no-deal Brexit; and they would request a statement on the government’s plan for the EU summit.

But we can’t do any of those things… parliament was getting in their way. People need their MPs holding the government to account.

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