Has the fog started to clear? Can any sense be made of the claim and denial about extending the transition beyond 2020 to buy time to solve the customs relationship and the border?
The Guardian, RTE and the BBC all thinks so, reporting top level briefings from both governments at the EU summit in Sofia. Without overdoing it sounds like a modest breakthrough on the hitherto incompatible versions of the stopgap .
The longer term relationship involving a longer transition to perhaps 2023 remains problematical, with the EU concerned about a deal involving the single market and Brexiteers fearing too close a relationship with the EU inhibiting free trade deals with other countries, or even no Brexit at all.
Stalemate; deadlock; impasse – or as Jeremy Corbyn put it at PMQs on Wednesday, complete disarray. The narrative about Theresa May’s approach to Brexit and the customs union has barely changed for weeks.
Yet quietly, officials were congratulating themselves on Thursday about making incremental progress on a closely interlinked issue – the Irish border.
After media reports overnight, Theresa May issued a carefully worded statement as she arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Friday, repeating the familiar statement that Britain will be “leaving the customs union”.
But Whitehall sources confirmed that away from the deadlocked Brexit war cabinet – her strategy and negotiations subcommittee – a fresh proposal has been agreed that Britain hopes would avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, if all else fails.
This “backstop” was written into the December agreement between London and Brussels, at the request of Ireland. It commits Britain to “maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
What that will mean in practice needs to be spelled out in detail. The EU has published its own definition, which would involve Britain remaining in the single market and customs union – but May told parliament “no prime minister could ever agree” to that.
May and her chief negotiator, Olly Robbins, have won the backing of key ministers for a British counter-proposal.
If the backstop had to be enacted, Britain would agree to maintain the common external tariff – the import tax levied on goods coming into the EU, which is hated by the Brexiters – and align its regulations with Europe’s.
But Britain would seek to opt out of the common commercial policy, which prevents member countries from negotiating independent trade deals.
The government hopes this approach will meet the definition of the backstop set out in the December agreement – and that it could help win over Dublin, which would put pressure on Brussels to accept it.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that there are two conflicting visions of Britain’s post-Brexit customs arrangements within May’s inner cabinet.
HMRC officials have warned that even once a decision is made, neither of these options will be ready for the end of the transition in December 2020.
In that case, some in Whitehall believe the backstop, which was only included in the December deal as a last resort, could end up being a stopgap while the details are worked out – or in the case of the Brexiters’ preferred max-fac option, technology is developed.
It is unclear whether Brussels will be prepared to accept this half-in, half-out approach to the customs union – but it at least helps Downing Street to rebut claims that the government is paralysed in the face of Brexit.
To that end, David Davis’s DexEU has also announced that will publish a 100-page white paper in in coming weeks, setting out what the government hopes to get out of the negotiations.
If May really wants to get on the front foot before parliament breaks up for the Whitsun recess, there is one more gamble she could take.
On Thursday, while announcing the Commons business for the week ahead , the leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, set aside time for considering Lords amendments on Tuesday and Wednesday, “if necessary”.
That just about leaves open the idea that she could bring the EU withdrawal bill, which has been peppered with amendments by rebellious peers, back to the Commons next week.
It would be highly risky, which is not May’s usual style – but if, as backbench Brexiters insist, she could win the contentious votes, she could leave for her break on the front foot over Brexit for the first time in months.
A new customs proposal to prevent a hard border in Ireland after Brexit has been agreed by cabinet.
Ministers signed off on the “backstop” that would see the UK match EU tariffs after 2020, if there is no deal on their preferred customs arrangements.
The measure offers the guarantee sought by the Irish government to stop a hard border being introduced at the end of the transition period.
Brexiteers fear the proposal amounts to staying in the customs union longer.
But No 10 insists this is not the case – saying the UK would still be able to sign and implement trade deals, and the measure would only last for a matter of months.
Government sources have also told the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, that the newly agreed proposal was very unlikely to be needed, as they are confident they will be able to agree with the EU a customs deal that avoids bringing back a hard Northern Ireland border.
Tony Connelly RTE’s very savvy Europe editor reports from Sofia that after May’s meeting with Varadkar on the fringed of the Sofia summit today that the Irish government may buy the fleshed-out proposal that the UK will table at the next summit in June, thus meeting the alleged deadline for a British proposal This means it has first has to be the centrepiece of the government’s White Paper which may emerge as soon as next week
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to table a new proposal on the future customs relationship between the European Union and the UK within the next two weeks.
Following a meeting with Mrs May in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Mr Varadkar said the prime minister had given him some insights into what he called “new thinking” on the British side.
He hinted that the British proposal would see the UK aligned with the EU customs union for some time to come.
He told reporters: “I said to the prime minister that any move that helped to align all of the EU and the UK in terms of customs into the future would be beneficial.
“It would help solve some of the problems related to the border but not all of them. It would certainly help us continue to trade between Britain and Ireland much as we do now.”
Following a 45-minute meeting on the margins of the EU-Western Balkans Summit, Mr Varadkar warned repeatedly that keeping the UK aligned on customs was not the only thing required to avoid a hard border.
There were issues involving continued alignment on the rules of the single market north and south, he said.
Mrs May’s new thinking, he said, was presented “verbally and conceptually” and as such Dublin could not respond until it was presented as a formal written proposal in the Brexit negotiations.
He said he was “not discouraged” by the meeting.
This is in marked contrast to what he was saying only yesterday.
Varadkar said that the EU and Dublin had “yet to see anything that remotely approaches” a way out of the current impasse.
“By June we need to see substantial progress as the tánaiste [Varadkar’s deputy, Simon Coveney] and I have said on many occasions. The European council will review progress in June. The deadline of course for the withdrawal agreement is October, but if we are not making real and substantial progress by June then we need to seriously question whether we’re going to have a withdrawal agreement at all.
But “just a couple of hitches”from the D Telegraph’s Brexit bulletin..
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London