So it’s October then. The UK will fail to present its withdrawal plan to the EU summit at the end of the month and its backstop, handed in only after a cabinet crisis was averted on Thursday, would still lead to a hard border in Ireland. Lurking in the background may still be the option of some differentiation in NI’s status from GB. Such is the peculiar course of these negotiations, that the EU is mildly encouraged by the state of play. This is reflected by sources in the Irish government as reported by Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy.
Officials in Dublin pointed out the obvious holes in the British document – it’s silent on the single market, silent on regulatory alignment, silent on the role of the European Court of Justice, and there is little detail on how the British proposals for remaining in the customs union but still agreeing trade deals with third countries would actually work.
But actually there were some pluses for Dublin in the document. The prospect of long-term customs union membership, or at least equivalence, doesn’t just solve Dublin’s North-South problem, but also its East-West one.
Crucially, the time limit to the backstop in the document, much heralded by the British media, is actually aspirational. The backstop only ends in 2021 if there’s something better in place.
There’s plenty of scepticism about the document in Dublin and Brussels. But at the same time, officials were keen to acknowledge that it represents progress, and a willingness to engage.
Today the commission has published a slideshow presentation (pdf)highlighting objections to the UK plan. It repeats the points made by Barnier on Friday, but also goes further. Technically it might not amount to an absolute rejection, but it is almost as good as.
UK Brexit backstop plan as published would lead still lead to hard border in Ireland, says the European commission.
It is worth stressing “as published” because the document published by the government on Friday said explicitly that it was just a proposal “for the customs element of the backstop”. But a backstop would have to cover regulatory alignment too. According to reports, one idea is for the final element of the backstop plan to involve Northern Ireland staying in regulatory alignment with the single market, but not the rest of the UK.
Bloomberg reported on Friday that the UK government are still considering the DUP’s anathema of a different status for Northern Ireland from GB , over regulations rather than customs. Might this be in anticipation of the EU’s rejection of their plan to keep the whole UK in alignment with the customs union until an aspirational deadline in 2021? Can this really be true or has Bloomberg just failed to keep up?
Prime Minister Theresa May’s officials are considering keeping Northern Ireland aligned with European Union rules after Brexit as a last resort to avoid a hard border on the island, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Brussels contrasted this approach to preventing infrastructure on the Irish land border, which both sides have agreed, with its own approach of a Northern Irish specific solution, which it said covered all the necessary ground, was permanent and provided a “timely and workable solution”.
The UK rejected the EU27’s proposal in February because it would require elements of a border to be erected between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, for customs checks and regulatory approval of goods.
In many detailed areas, the commission said the UK’s proposals fell short of what was required to prevent a hard Irish border. It said there was insufficient detail in the UK proposal on whether the UK would remain part of the EU customs union or would create a new customs territory comprising the EU27 and UK. This distinction, Brussels said, had important implications for customs duties collected, regulatory controls and governance arrangements including the applicability of European Court of Justice rulings in Britain.
It said the UK document fell short on how Britain proposed the EU would deal with other countries and whether the UK should still be considered a member of the EU for trade deals with the rest of the world.
On value added tax, it accused the UK of advocating a “piecemeal application of EU VAT and excise rules” which would bring the risk of “serious risks of fraud on a significant resource for Member States”. “How can a third country continue shaping and applying EU rules and carry out controls without proper EU supervision and enforcement?” the document asked. With the UK proposals suggesting time limits and saying nothing about regulatory checks for goods, the document concluded by questioning whether the UK proposals answered any of the big questions. ”Is this a backstop?” Brussels said, in a terse slide on the time limits proposed by the UK side.
The idea — which hasn’t been agreed by ministers — could help break a deadlock in Brexit talks. But it also risks causing more domestic trouble for May, who needs to keep her divided Cabinet together and the Northern Irish party that props up her government onside.
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