In an “exclusive” pieced together from “dozens” of Whitehall and EU sources, the Sunday Times claims that Theresa May has secured a deal that will keep the whole UK in the customs union for the transition. A political declaration on “a future economic partnership” (FEP) will allow the UK to strike a Canada-style free trade deal that will appeal to Brexiteers.
While the story doesn’t mention a specific time limit as demanded by the hardliners or a “break clause” floated earlier by the UK, it does refer to an “exit clause” which they clearly believe should suit all sides. The backstop is not mentioned in the body of the story but is left to unattributed sources in terms that that will hardly delight Dublin.
A careful reading of the follow up story shows that the backstop hasn’t disappeared. After leaving the EU, the UK would retain the option of remaining in the customs union. But if it wants to strike a Canada-style free trade deal, the backstop is activated. This is the last ditch in which implacable Brexiteers will stand and fight. It’s less clear if the DUP will be among their number.
“Now, after a week of intensive talks, and ministerial delegations to Dublin and Belfast last week, the European Commission’s negotiator, Michel Barnier, seems open to a solution to the final sticking point: preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Until now Brussels had insisted on a “backstop” that kept the province — but not the rest of the UK — inside the customs union.
Ambassadors to the EU were briefed by one of Barnier’s team on Wednesday that a “British backstop” is under active discussion, which would see all the UK remain in a customs union. Several sources with knowledge of the talks say Barnier is prepared to write that into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement. Such a move is likely to placate the Democratic Unionist Party, the Irish government and Tory remainers and will make it harder for Labour MPs to oppose a deal.
The deal is likely to outline a spectrum of possible outcomes, encompassing May’s Chequers vision of accepting a “common rule book” with the EU at one end and a Canada-style deal at the other.
“There will be an agreement where there is a balance between regulatory alignment and checks on the border,” one source said. “Essentially it says the higher you have the alignment, the lower you have the checks on the border. That allows you to say to Jacob: ‘We can go for Canada, we’ll just have to agree to more checks on the border.’ And you can say to the remainers: ‘We don’t need a customs union because we can have high alignment with the EU.’”
The problem is that the EU is likely to insist that the exit trigger contains a clause ensuring that Northern Ireland does not leave the EU’s orbit — effectively reintroducing the original Brussels backstop by the back door. “The PM will be able to say there’s no more backstop, we’ve got rid of that — success,” a senior Whitehall source said. “It is UK-wide — success. There’s an exit mechanism — success. And you’ve got Canada. The small print is that Ireland is f*****.”
Brussels is now looking for solutions instead of presenting problems, particularly on Ireland. Brussels has privately conceded that checks on goods can take place “completely in the market”, meaning that British trading standards officers in Belfast would be used to police EU regulations where they are sold, rather than where they cross the border.
That message was conveyed on a trip to London last week by a senior member of Barnier’s team. “This is a big deal for us,” an EU official said. “We’d be allowing a third country to enforce our rules for us, which we don’t normally do.”
However, Brussels takes a less sanguine approach on so-called phytosanitary goods, the movement of plant products, where EU law stipulates that checks should happen at borders.
Pressure will be piled on the Irish government to give ground. British officials point out that efforts by Dublin to use the article 50 withdrawal agreement to get its way cannot provide a permanent solution. “Article 50 is a winding-down mechanism, not the basis of the future,” a British source said. “The EU has not been straight with the Irish about that.”
Extracts from the lead
Senior sources say the prime minister has secured private concessions from Brussels that will allow her to keep the whole of Britain in a customs union, avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. They expect this to placate remainer Tories and win over some Labour MPs.
And in a move that will appeal to Eurosceptics, May is also said to be on course to secure a political deal on a “future economic partnership” (FEP) with the European Union that will allow Britain to keep open the prospect of a free trade deal resembling that enjoyed by Canada.
The Sunday Times has been told that preparations for a final deal are far more advanced than previously disclosed and will lead to a document of 50 pages or more when it is published — not the vague, five-page plan many expect.
A close aide of Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, revealed a major concession on the Irish border during a private meeting in London last week. The EU now accepts that regulatory checks on goods can take place “in the market” by British officials, meaning they can be conducted at factories and shops rather than at the border.
The EU will write an all-UK customs deal into the legally binding withdrawal agreement so an EU-designed “backstop” treating Northern Ireland differently from the UK mainland is not required
- There will be an “exit clause” to convince Eurosceptics the UK will not be in it for ever
- The FEP will outline how a new trade deal would balance market access and border checks, making clear that a deal along the lines of the EU’s arrangement with Canada is still a possible outcome as is May’s Chequers plan for close alignment.
May will sell the plan by:
- Telling Brexiteer ministers that unless they support it, they will be personally responsible for causing a no-deal Brexit, which most regard as a potential disaster
- Telling remainers that May fought for the closest possible alignment until the last minute, but that the negotiations mean Britain will not be a full member of the customs union for ever
- Not admitting in public that she has ditched her Chequers blueprint, but signalling privately that she will allow a “pivot” towards a different “landing zone” for the final deal.
The challenge May faces in winning support for the plan is spelt out in stark terms today by David Davis, the former Brexit secretary. Writing in this newspaper, he issues a call for the prime minister to publish legal advice on any deal so ministers and MPs understand its implications before they are asked to vote on it.
Davis warns May that she will get in the same “mess” as Tony Blair did over the Iraq War unless she is transparent about the legal basis for “one of the most fundamental decisions that a government will have taken in modern times”.
In a follow up article, political editor Tim Shipman clarifies that these are the elements of the deal “if May has the courage to grasp it and her cabinet and backbenchers let her seal it”.
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