The UK and Ireland are closing in on a border solution

The FT hopefully leads:  “Ireland backs Theresa May’s plan for all-UK customs union with the UK”. The story is jointly by-lined by their political editor at Conservative party conference in Birmingham and their Ireland correspondent.

She will offer to meet the EU half way on the vexed issue of the Irish backstop, agreeing to Brussels’ demands that Northern Ireland stay part of the single market regulatory area of the bloc. But, in return, she wants the EU to concede to Britain’s demands that under the backstop plan the whole UK, rather than just Northern Ireland, would stay in the customs union for a limited period until a UK-EU trade deal was finalised.

The “temporary” extension of the customs union would prevent Northern Ireland being carved off from the rest of the UK into a separate EU customs territory. Some British ministers predict the arrangement might in practice extend well into the next decade. The main attraction of the plan for Leo Varadkar’s Irish government is that it would remove the need for customs checks on the land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It would also avert the need for customs checks on Ireland’s €65bn annual trade with Britain. But Brussels is reluctant to give its legally binding agreement to provisions that could keep the UK in a customs union with the bloc after Brexit, since it is concerned this could serve as a back door into the EU’s trade and regulatory regime with none of the obligations of membership.

 

The story is broadly confirmed by the Irish Times’ political editor

If a withdrawal agreement – along with an agreed declaration about the future trading relationship – is concluded in the coming weeks, the UK will enter a two-year transition period next March during which its relationship with the EU will remain unchanged.

However, the EU has consistently made clear that this can only happen if there is agreement on a legally binding Irish backstop.

Irish sources expect that the forthcoming British proposal will abandon the previous British idea of a “time-limited” backstop, which would expire after a set period, in favour of an “event-limited” backstop, which would only expire on agreement between the EU and the UK on a future trading relationship that maintained the current open Border.

If sufficiently clear and legally enforceable, this could solve the backstop problem from the Irish point of view, though other aspects of the British proposal, including Britain’s relationship with the EU’s customs union, could still be problematic for the EU.

 So the EU remain to be convinced. The details of May’s backstop are still to be revealed. Regulatory alignment also remains to be settled and somehow squared with the DUP. If it all comes together at the negotiations in a fortnight, it has to be sold to the House of Commons.  This will be a hard sell. Some are already calling it BRNO – Brexit in name only. Conditions for  divergence  in the final settlement to be negotiated after withdrawal next March  will apply, set by the EU. At the very least, a time scale will have to be set to stand a chance of getting past the Brexiteers.

And what of a role Stormont, as floated by Mrs May, prompting Arlene Foster’ stray remarks about the GFA,  as discussed by Sarah?  As the  Irish Times piece points out…

The Irish Government could also object to any suggestion from Ms May that future regulatory divergence between the North and the rest of the UK would have to be approved by the Stormont Assembly, as Dublin believes it would amount to giving the DUP a veto.

But May suggested Stormont could make changes to the UK side of the border arrangements, implying they’d be up and working already before Stormont came into it – not the same as a veto in advance – and surely intended a confidence building gesture to the DUP to allay their fears of a slippery slope to a united Ireland. The creative move, mooted long ago, would be to devolve north-south cross border administration and development to the Assembly, locking the local parties into a revised EU/UK/Northern Ireland settlement within the GFA . And  incidentally  creating a rival attraction to a border poll. Not an unattractive vision.

Newton has taken a winding trail around Arlene to tie the DUP in knots . Great stuff.

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