The rumour has now become fact (almost)
Britain will tell Brussels it is prepared to stay tied to the customs union beyond 2021 as ministers remain deadlocked over a future deal with the EU, the Telegraph has learned.
The Prime Minister’s Brexit war Cabinet earlier this week agreed on a new “backstop” as a last resort to avoid a hard Irish border, having rejected earlier proposals from the European Union.
Ministers signed off the plans on Tuesday despite objections from Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, and Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary. A pro-European Cabinet source said that Mr Johnson and Mr Gove were “outgunned” during the meeting and reluctantly accepted the plans.
The Brexit sub-committee reached a consensus that Britain will stay aligned to the customs union if highly complex technology needed to operate borders after Brexit is not ready. Officials have warned it may not be in place until 2023.
Sources said that the new Irish “backstop” will be strictly “time-limited” and make clear that Britain will be free to implement trade deals.
However, Eurosceptics have raised concerns that it could lead to Britain being tied to the customs union indefinitely.
Downing St in a sort of non- denial denial have said no decisions have been taken.
Downing Street sources earlier dismissed reports that the Brexit war cabinet had agreed that the UK would have to stay in the customs union for an extended period if there is to be is no hard Irish border.
One source dismissed the reports, saying: “There was no proposal discussed or agreed that would see us staying in the customs union beyond the implementation period.”
But the BBC are reporting that ministers recognise that extending the transition deadline beyond December 2020 is the only way to break the deadlock over the customs union and the Irish border. They are reinforced by HMRC signalling that neither of the options on the Cabinet table, a customs partnership or “max fac” could be ready by the end of 2020.
The D Telegraph also report that on Tuesday the Brexit war Cabinet agreed to put forward a new version of the backstop, which would remove the reference to the single market but keep Britain aligned to customs union rules.
The Cabinet source said that Mr Johnson, Mr Gove and David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, had made clear their objections to the approach. However, Mr Davis was reassured after securing improvements, while other Eurosceptics eventually decided to “swallow” the proposed backstop.
The delay is likely to polarise opinion further between the feeling that the UK will never leave the EU and militant Brexiteers like Jacob Rees Mogg who would prefer to walk away without a deal.
The proposed delay is bound to register as the full EU summit in Sofia today and discussed on the fringes by the prime minister and the taosieach. But all problems are not magicked away. As Denis Staunton in the Irish Times points out:
For the EU, remaining in the customs union but leaving the single market will not allow for frictionless trade because border checks would still be required to deal with issues such as phytosanitary standards.
An elegant solution might be to extend the proposed backstop, which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit, to the whole of the United Kingdom. Brussels will resist such a move, however, on the basis that Northern Ireland is only being allowed to cherry-pick the single market because of its special circumstances.
More clarity will be desperately sought from the UK government’s White Paper on Brexit policy due in the next few weeks.
Theresa May and her Brexit “war cabinet” have agreed a new fallback position on the Irish border that could preserve elements of the customs union if Britain cannot strike a deal on its preferred post-Brexit trading plan.
Ministers including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and David Lidington discussed the “backstop” plan for Northern Ireland that will come into force if Mrs May’s blueprint for customs arrangements collapses.
Mrs May has rejected an EU version of the backstop that would have guaranteed no infrastructure on the Irish border and committed the UK to maintaining regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This would have meant that Northern Ireland and mainland Britain had different rules and raised the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea, a possibility greeted with horror by the DUP and many Tories.
The revised UK proposal, discussed this week, is to continue with elements of customs arrangements if the backstop is needed. The plan is thought to involve agreeing to continue collecting the EU common external tariff, the standardised rate set by Brussels on goods entering the EU.
This would mean rules changes affecting the whole of the UK rather than Northern Ireland alone. No 10 sources said last night that there was no plan to stay “in” a customs union and that this week’s Brexit war cabinet discussed only the Northern Ireland fallback plan, not post-Brexit customs arrangements.
The EU had warned Mrs May that Britain would have to request an extension to all elements of the transition period if it needed more time to implement a long-term customs deal.
Senior government figures had conceded that neither of their proposed options for a customs deal would be ready by the end of the implementation period in December 2020.
In private discussions in Brussels, EU negotiators told the UK that they would not accept a temporary “pick and mix” extension to the customs union arrangements, insisting that Britain must request an extension to the transition period in its entirety, including continued payments to the EU budget.
The warning has fuelled suspicions held by cabinet Brexiteers, particularly Mr Johnson, who met the former prime minister Gordon Brown yesterday to discuss girls’ education around the world, that the EU is trying to make negotiations on a customs deal as difficult as possible. They believe the ultimate aim is to force Britain to stay in both the customs union and the single market.
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