Wednesday 16 October 2019

EU's final offer: Brexit deal, but North must stay in customs union

Taoiseach asks why the UK parliament is going against people's wishes

British Prime Minister Theresa May giving a speech at the Orsted East Coast Hub in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Photo: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May giving a speech at the Orsted East Coast Hub in Grimsby, Lincolnshire. Photo: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

British prime minister Theresa May has effectively been told by the EU to choose between a Brexit deal and the DUP.

Amid growing frustration in Brussels, the EU's chief negotiator took the unprecedented decision to tweet what he is willing to offer the UK in a bid to break the ongoing impasse.

Michel Barnier has proposed that Britain can leave the single customs territory unilaterally - but Northern Ireland must remain tied to the EU regulations in order to avoid a hard Border.

The idea was swiftly rejected by the DUP as "neither realistic nor sensible".

Mrs May will put the Withdrawal Agreement to the House of Commons again on Tuesday in the hope of overturning the record 230-vote defeat she suffered in January.

However, she was left to desperately implore the EU to facilitate legally binding changes to the backstop yesterday. She said she needed "one more push" to get the deal through parliament.

However, EU sources told the Irish Independent they remained "hugely sceptical" about her ability to win any vote.

Mr Barnier's offer includes a legal guarantee that Britain can leave the backstop at any time, but it does not change the so-called 'Irish Protocol' within the Withdrawal Agreement.

He stressed Britain would still need to honour its commitment to preserve a Border free of controls on this island.

"EU commits to give UK the option to exit the single customs territory unilaterally, while the other elements of the backstop must be maintained to avoid a hard Border," he tweeted. "UK will not be forced into customs union against its will."

Sources said this would amount to a border "in the Irish Sea" if a future UK government decided to break the customs link with the EU.

The backstop was originally designed to apply exclusively to Northern Ireland - but Mrs May convinced the EU to make it UK-wide after the DUP complained that the North was being treated differently.

A majority of business leaders and farmers in the North believe a sea border would be less impactful than one on the island.

The Government here last night supported the proposal from Mr Barnier, saying he continues "to stand up for the interests of the whole of the EU, including Ireland".

"The Taoiseach has made clear that he would not oppose a backstop which is specific to Northern Ireland, if that is deemed helpful, but that would have to be a decision for the UK," a spokesman said.

Nigel Dodds, the deputy head of the DUP, which props up Mrs May's government, categorically rejected the compromise proposal last night.

"It disrespects the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom," he said. "We need to work for a sensible deal which can work for everyone in Northern Ireland. It is possible, but there must be less intransigence in Brussels."

UK Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay also said now was not the time to rerun old arguments.

"The UK has put forward clear new proposals. We now need to agree a balanced solution that can work for both sides," he said.

The gulf between the EU and UK was on display yesterday as both Mrs May and Mr Varadkar urged each other to change tack.

Speaking in Dublin, the Taoiseach questioned why the UK hadn't come forward with a concrete offer to the EU.

He described Brexit as "a problem of their creation" and accused the House of Commons of actively going against the wishes of a majority of people in Northern Ireland who support the backstop.

Mr Varadkar said both sides had spent 18 months agreeing the backstop.

Asked if there was anything Ireland could offer to help break the impasse, Mr Varadkar replied: "What's not obvious is what the UK government is offering the European Union and Ireland should they wish us to make any further compromises.

"We have received no offer from them as to what they would give us in return for any changes.

"It requires a change of approach from the UK government to understand that Brexit is a problem of their creation."

The Taoiseach questioned why the UK parliament was going "against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, the majority of politicians, businesses, farmers and civil society in Northern Ireland, who all accept an agreement that the backstop should be part of the Withdrawal Agreement".

With no changes to offer parliament, Mrs May looks set to lose her second attempt to win approval of her deal.

The Brexit effort "needs just one more push to address the final, specific concerns of our parliament", she said in the northern English port of Grimsby, where 70pc voted to leave the EU in 2016.

"So let's not hold back. Let's do what is necessary for MPs to back the deal on Tuesday."

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the appeal was "a sign of desperation" and added: "They've got to recognise her deal isn't going to work, it doesn't get support, and will not get through parliament."

Irish Independent

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