Ireland set to back UK customs proposal

The Irish Government is prepared to help British prime minister Theresa May push her customs partnership proposal, but will not give an inch on last December’s backstop agreement.

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar at Downing Street in September 2017

Senior Government sources have indicated that the Dublin negotiating team, led by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, has deliberately escalated the stakes ahead of June’s make-or-break summit in order to force some progress on the Irish issue.

The British government is said to be examining the possibility of the UK as a whole remaining aligned to the EU customs union for several years to come as a way of resolving the dilemma over its future relationship with the EU and drawing some of the controversy out of the Irish “backstop” obligation,

Irish Government sources have said they would be happy to allow extensions to the status quo beyond the two-year transition period.

The British government has told Dublin about the proposals and the Government is likely to back Ms May at the summit.

However, Irish support will be forthcoming only if Ms May faces down the hard Brexiteers in her cabinet and her government shows progress on a common understanding of the border “backstop”, the commitment to maintain an open border even without agreement.

A spokesperson for the Government here said: “The Irish Government position is exactly as it was. There must be a backstop in the withdrawal agreement. If there’s no backstop there’s no withdrawal agreement and no transition period.’

British Brexit secretary David Davis has said an upcoming white paper is the “most significant publication on the EU since the referendum”. It would include “detailed, ambitious, and precise explanations” of the UK’s positions, with less than 11 months remaining before Britain is due to quit the EU.

It came after Ms May’s Brexit ‘war cabinet’ met again on Tuesday without reaching agreement on which of the two options for customs arrangements on the Irish border, the “customs partnership” and “maximum facilitation” models, it will back.

The EU is putting pressure on Britain to present its preferred option at a meeting of the European Council in June, though Downing Street insists it will not put a timetable on the process.

Mr Davis said the document would set out “what would change and what would feel different” after Brexit and was an opportunity for his government to show the thought behind its approach to the change to a domestic and EU audience.

He said: “This will be our most significant publication on the EU since the referendum. It will communicate our ambition for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, in the context of our vision for the UK’s future role in the world.

He reportedly told Ms May that the customs partnership model she favours would be illegal under international law.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil will not support a ‘max fac plus delay’ customs arrangement for the border after Britain leaves the EU, according to the party’s spokeswoman on Brexit.

Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers said agreeing to the proposal would weaken Ireland’s negotiating position. She also said the Irish Government had been “too nice” in negotiations.

“I think we’ve been far too facilitative of the Tory infighting that’s going on and we’re allowing it to drag on to the detriment of our own country,” she said.

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