Tuesday 17 July 2018

Fireworks expected over May’s latest Border plan

UK goes on EU charm offensive in bid to prevent instant defeat of proposal

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Berlin yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, with British Prime Minister Theresa May in Berlin yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Kevin Doyle and Shona Murray

Irish officials have been told that Theresa May is prepared to finally face down her rebellious ministers when they meet to hammer out her latest version of Brexit today.

The UK is now moving towards a proposal that is a "hybrid" of the two previous solutions put forward to keep the Irish Border open.

It is understood Mrs May hopes to gain support from a majority of her cabinet for a customs arrangement that involves both technology and remaining closely aligned to existing EU rules.

But "fireworks" are expected during a showdown at her official country residence in Chequers.

Ministers close to Mrs May have been on a charm offensive over recent days in an attempt to convince EU leaders not to instantly condemn her proposals.

It is understood behind-the-scenes efforts have been made to convince key governments, including Ireland, to allow the UK some breathing space in the coming days. Previous offerings have been shot down by key EU figures within hours of being made public.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney met with a number of ministers in London earlier this week, including Mrs May's deputy David Lidington and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

The embattled prime minister flew to Berlin yesterday for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"She wouldn't have gone to Germany to talk Brexit unless there was something real to discuss," a source said.

In Dublin, the Government will be adopting a "cautious attitude" over the coming days.

Senior sources believe Mrs May is prepared to take a hard-line with dissenting ministers in a bid to gain some momentum on Brexit.

"What she suggests will not ultimately be enough to satisfy the EU but we're hopeful there'll be enough to get everybody around the table for proper talks. We are expecting a move," said a source.

Papers circulated to ministers ahead of today's crunch meeting at Chequers are reported to recommend that the UK should maintain a "common rulebook" with the EU for all goods, including agricultural and food products.

The document also says that the price for divergence from EU rules and regulations on services is likely to be reduced access for UK-based firms to European markets.

This would make it difficult for the UK to secure trade deals with other countries such as the US. But responding to reports in the UK yesterday, Downing Street issued a statement saying it is "categorically untrue" that the post-Brexit relationship with the EU envisaged by Mrs May would make a trade deal with the US impossible.

Her plan is to have broad agreement on a White Paper before tonight, although it is unlikely to be formally published before Thursday.

Ahead of the focus turning to Chequers, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz equivocated on whether a no-Border scenario will remain the EU's goal, showing signs it may be sacrificed for a trade deal.

"Our goal is to reach an agreement" on the Irish Border, he told reporters yesterday.

"If that's not possible we need to avoid a hard Brexit. If not it's good to keep negotiating."

In response Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he hoped Mr Kurz's comments were not a signal of division among the EU27.

Mr Kurz will be in Dublin on Sunday to discuss Brexit with the Taoiseach.

"The UK has not requested an extension so I do not see any reason now why we should be talking about or considering an extension of the Article 50 talks," he said, adding "we need to get on with coming to an agreement".

Mr Varadkar said extending the uncertainty would add to the worries for businesses.

Meanwhile, Scottish ministers have submitted their own "realistic and workable" Brexit proposals to the UK government.

They include a plan to retain membership of the European single market and remain part of the customs union.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said "the time is fast approaching for the Prime Minister to face down those who would take us over the cliff edge" by backing a so-called soft Brexit.

Irish Independent

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