Monday 14 October 2019

Brexit: EU to offer UK-wide backstop

Move could end Northern Ireland impasse in Brexit talks, say Brussels sources

PROTEST: A European flag flutters in the breeze at Trafalgar Square in a march calling for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal in central London yesterday. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images
PROTEST: A European flag flutters in the breeze at Trafalgar Square in a march calling for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal in central London yesterday. Photo: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images

Shona Murray

The EU is willing to offer a UK-wide customs backstop in the future in order to break the current impasse on Brexit talks, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Sources in Brussels have confirmed the EU is prepared to insert a text into the withdrawal agreement allowing for a UK-wide customs backstop to be created during the next phase of talks.

It is hoped that the promise of a UK-wide customs backstop to eventually replace the current Northern Ireland backstop could go some of the way to breaking the deadlock in talks.

"This will be seen as a better backstop by those in the UK who feel Northern Ireland is being cut off by the current plan" said a source.

A UK-wide customs backstop would take a lot more time to thrash out, as EU member states would have to make sure Britain wasn't getting undue access to the EU customs union through the ''backdoor'', if the backstop were ever needed.

In the meantime, the UK would still have to sign up to the current backstop plan until the new one is negotiated.

"The UK want a UK-wide customs element but that has still to be negotiated so it is only when the full detail is clear that we can say if it will replace or reduce the need for a Northern Ireland backstop", said a senior source in Brussels. "But that is the aim, the devil will be in the detail... we certainly hope for that," said the source.

The source also revealed that UK Prime Minister Theresa May has conceded that the backstop cannot be time-limited, and can only be deemed temporary if and when another solution is found.

"They want it to be temporary, to be replaced by something better, but accept that cannot mean a specific time limit," they said.

Meanwhile, a second Brexit source also confirmed the UK-wide backstop "is being discussed" as a solution to breaking the stalemate on the withdrawal agreement.

"But it will take time to map out and negotiate," the source said, so won't be ready by December - the new, hard deadline for this round of Brexit talks to be completed.

"If negotiations on a UK-wide backstop are successful, it could theoretically replace the Northern Ireland backstop," the source said.

This could appease the DUP and others who are concerned about Northern Ireland being seen to remain inside the EU structure while the rest of the UK breaks away after the UK leaves the EU in March next year.

The UK is in great danger of crashing out of the EU with no deal, in spite of the fact that around 90pc of the withdrawal agreement has been signed off. If Britain crashes out it will most likely lead to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish State.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned EU leaders that violence could return to Northern Ireland if a hard border is resurrected.

"Concerns about the re-emergence of a hard border and the possibility of a return to violence are very real," he said at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday.

Mr Varadkar refused to confirm or deny whether a clause referencing a UK-wide customs backstop will be contained in the withdrawal agreement.

"There's lots of ideas floating around, it wouldn't be in the interests of getting to a deal for me to be speculating," Mr Varadkar told the Sunday Independent when asked at a press conference in Brussels. "I don't want to speculate," he added.

Also asked about the possibility of the UK-wide customs backstop, Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: "The real challenge here is timing. A UK-wide backstop is a lot more complicated than simply putting in to the backstop replacing Northern Ireland specific with UK-wide, because once its UK-wide it effectively means Britain gets privileged access to the EU's customs territory."

However, he said the EU is "willing to facilitate" it, speaking on the margins of a EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday.

The backstop is the insurance policy guaranteeing no hard border will ever be erected on the island of Ireland, regardless of the EU and UK relationship after Brexit.

It was agreed last December by the EU and UK but has been a source of major conflict in British politics ever since, and is the largest stumbling block in the Brexit talks so far.

Mrs May said the current Northern Ireland-wide backstop "threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom".

Mrs May's partner in government, the DUP, says the Northern Ireland backstop crosses its "blood red" lines, and has threatened to collapse the British government if Mrs May signs off on it.

The backstop is contained in a protocol in the withdrawal agreement - also known as the divorce settlement - which are the terms and conditions in which the UK can leave the EU.

In addition, Mrs May said she is willing to consider an extension to the transition period - the 20-month timeline between the day of Brexit and December 2020 in which the EU and UK work out their new trading relationship.

It is believed this could be enough to satisfy unionists that agreeing the Withdrawal Agreement won't result in splitting the United Kingdom.

However, this extension of the transition period has already been given short shrift from Brexiteers who want to leave the EU as soon as possible.

The withdrawal agreement also deals with the financial settlement, which is the €40bn bill the UK owes the EU for projects and commitments made over its 45-year membership.

Sunday Independent

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