May bids to extend the Northern Ireland backstop to the whole UK to buy time to solve the border problem

The Times reports the latest wheeze for sorting the border problem. The clear implication is that the UK government are admitting  that neither of their  transition ideas for a customs partnership or “max fac” will fly. But does it do any more than kick the can further down the road?

Theresa May will ask the European Union for a second Brexit transition period to run until 2023 to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Britain will propose another transition covering customs and trade that will follow the period already agreed, scheduled to last until the end of 2020, The Times understands.

The prime minister’s new proposal has not yet been tabled in Brussels and faces opposition from EU negotiators and Brexit-supporting Conservatives. The transitional deal already agreed will last from next March to the end of 2020. Britain will ask for a customs and regulatory alignment implementation period from 2021 to at least 2023 to avoid the need for infrastructure or checks on the border.

The second transition period appears to be part of a wider strategy in which Mrs May will take on the Brexit and Remain wings of her party in a key Commons vote within weeks.

Julian Smith, the chief whip, told Tory MPs yesterday that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, heavily amended by the Lords, would be brought back to the Commons soon after members returned from a short break next month.

Under the latest proposal, Britain will impose EU external tariffs, follow the customs code and implement regulatory alignment on industrial goods.

A source said that there would be a separate all-Ireland agreement that would mean some checks on farm products heading to Ireland from the mainland. The reasoning behind the proposal is that by 2024, at the latest, new customs arrangements will satisfy the EU that a hard border will not emerge.

The FT provides confirmation of a sort

More than anything, a transition period( to the mid 20s) would give Britain time to set up customs infrastructure, introduce computer systems, inspection facilities, hire staff, and test technology.

Jon Thompson, chief executive of HM Revenue & Customs, estimated such preparations would at best take three to five years, whatever model of UK-EU trade is decided on. Business would then expect further time to adjust. Much depends on the UK and EU agreeing processes, passing legislation, or completing equivalence assessments — work probably running into the 2020s. Asked when his customs transformation would finish, Mr Thompson said: “When am I going to start?”

One way to guarantee a stopgap is through the withdrawal treaty, the binding agreement detailing Britain’s exit terms.

The EU’s draft text includes the 21-month transition for the whole UK until December 2020. Britain could ask for this to be extended. But that would involve the whole corpus of EU law remaining in force for longer — a no-go for Brexiters. It would also require a further fraught negotiation on UK budget contributions. 

The emerging preference of Theresa May, prime minister, is to redesign the “ backstop ” for Northern Ireland and apply it to the whole UK for a time-limited period.

London and Brussels agree there must be a fallback plan, or backstop, to guarantee no hard border emerges across the island of Ireland after Brexit. But the EU envisages this will apply to Northern Ireland alone, tying the province closely to the union’s customs and goods regime. This is anathema to Mrs May, since it would mean checks on trade across the Irish Sea. By extending the backstop to the whole of the UK, Mrs May could avoid such internal borders within the UK and might be able to “ cherry pick ” some of the advantages of the EU single market for goods, providing a more gentle glide-path out of the EU.

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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