By Michael Holden and Ismail Shakil
European Union negotiators have floated a tentative Brexit plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and to give Britain stronger guarantees that a customs border would not be needed along the Irish Sea, the Financial Times said yesterday.
The biggest obstacle to a Brexit deal has been Britain’s wish to keep the border of its province of Northern Ireland with Ireland open, preserving frictionless trade and the 1998 peace deal that ended sectarian violence, while leaving the EU’s single market and customs union to forge its own trade deals.
With just over five months until Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, talks have stalled over the issue.
The FT said EU Brexit negotiators were now considering a new proposal to compromise on the Irish backstop — the insurance policy to ensure there will be no return of customs checks on the border between Ireland and the North if a future trading relationship is not in place in time.
Citing several diplomats familiar with the plan, the paper said Northern Ireland would remain in a deep customs union with the bloc, applying the union’s full “customs code” and following single market regulations for goods and agri-food products.
Meanwhile, the UK would be in a more “bare-bones” customs arrangement with the EU, in which it would apply a common external tariff on imports from outside the union and rules of origin, the FT reported, saying the plan had been presented to EU ambassadors on Wednesday and floated with UK officials.
The paper said Ms May’s negotiating team would give an indication next week on whether Britain was open to the compromise which would be a crucial decision on whether the EU will hold a special summit to discuss a potential deal this month.
Such a compromise plan is likely to face opposition from Brexit supporters in Ms May’s government and party who do not want Britain to be tied into an open-ended customs union with the bloc until a UK-EU trade deal is agreed.
The FT said the plan contained many proposals which London had rejected last month.
“The same fundamental problems are there,” the FT quoted one EU diplomat briefed on the plan. “They’ve played around with the ingredients to the deal.”
However, sterling rose against the dollar and euro following the report, adding to earlier gains after officials said Britain and the EU had made progress on a deal to give London’s dominant financial centre basic access to the bloc’s markets after Brexit.
Brussels and Downing St also played down speculation yesterday about a breakthrough that could safeguard the City of London’s access to EU markets.
Number 10 said it was speculation and talks were ongoing, while the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier hit out at “misleading” accounts.
But Ms May’s official spokesman said: “It’s time for everybody to draw a deep breath.”
Reuters. Additional reporting Press Association.