Sunday 26 May 2019

EU leaders offer last-ditch lifeline to May on Brexit border issue

But Tusk warns British PM she must bring 'creative' proposals to today's crucial meeting of EU heads

Struggle: EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. PHOTO: Yves Herman
Struggle: EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. PHOTO: Yves Herman
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The EU is open to the idea of allowing the UK leave over a longer period of time in return for agreeing to accepting prevent a hard border.

Ahead of a crucial summit of European leaders, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has offered a new proposal aimed at breaking the Brexit deadlock.

The EU's chief negotiator told ministers from the 27 member states that he is prepared to work on fresh ideas even at this late stage.

According to the 'Financial Times', it has been informally suggested to the UK that the 'transition period' during which the UK will still operate within EU rules could be extended by a year. It is currently due to run for 21 months, up to December 2020.

Such a move would allow more time for the UK and EU to sort out a new trade relationship, including a permanent way of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In return for the extension the EU wants the UK to sign-up to a legally binding 'backstop' that will keep Northern Ireland inside the customs union "unless and until" the border question is resolved.

The Irish government argues that British Prime Minister Theresa May signed up to such a 'backstop' last March - but the EU and UK sides have yet to agree on the terms.

In a bid to avoid creating a border down the Irish Sea, Mrs May has suggested keeping all of the UK inside the customs union for a limited time period.

The EU appears open to this idea but says there can be no specific end date for Northern Ireland.

Mr Barnier is understood to have outlined his vision for a "two tier" backstop. This would include both a backstop for Northern Ireland alone, keeping it within the EU customs union and single market for goods, and alternative references to a UK-wide customs union.

"The extension and two-tier backstop arrangement would only be offered if all other parts of the Withdrawal Agreement are reached," said one official told the 'Financial Times'.

Another diplomat added: "The extension is an example of how we could be flexible to help the British side if they want it."

British diplomats claim that the idea of a longer transition period was "an idea being kicked around by Barnier" but say they are open to the idea.

The proposal could serve as a lifeline and buy more time for Mrs May, who is under huge pressure in both Brussels and at home in Westminster ahead of the start of tonight's crunch meeting of European leaders on Brexit.

She faces a tough reception at the European Council meeting amid demands from President Donald Tusk to bring "creative" proposals to break the impasse over the future of the border in Ireland.

And at home Mrs May has had hard-line Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party threatening to force a no confidence vote in her leadership if ministers didn't persuade her to drop her Chequers Brexit plan.

Mrs May will address the other 27 EU national leaders at a summit before they sit down to dinner without her.

Officials said they expected the EU leaders to tell her they have little more to offer since talks stalled on Sunday and they will step up preparations for Britain to drop out of the bloc with no deal.

The EU leaders will decide at dinner on whether to firm up a tentative plan to hold a special Brexit summit in mid-November.

But Mr Tusk said they would need to believe that a deal was nearly done - and without some new move from Mrs May today, that belief seems unlikely to come this week.

The key sticking point is the backstop.

Last night Mr Tusk warned that the risk of a "no deal" dumping Britain out of the bloc and into legal limbo and border chaos on March 29 was now greater than ever.

He put the onus on May to bring a "creative" solution to break the impasse over the border in Ireland.

Mr Barnier said his team has worked with the UK negotiators to come to an agreement on an orderly withdrawal of Britain from the EU. But he said more time is needed before an agreement can be reached.

He said it must be orderly for everyone, including Ireland, and a solution must be found to avoid a hard border.

He said: "We are not there yet. Several issues remain open including the Irish one."

Irish Independent

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