The EU’s Brexit negotiators are said to be preparing a compromise on the Northern Ireland border issue, which is hoped will break the deadlock in the floundering talks.
Brussels is reportedly willing to include plans for a “bare-bones” customs union in the Brexit withdrawal agreement – a measure that would ease the need for checks at Irish sea ports.
Both sides have agreed in principle that a customs union – perhaps temporary – between the UK and EU could help prevent the checks, which the UK wants to avoid at all costs.
But the EU has so far insisted that such a customs union would have to be negotiated as part of the future relationship after Britain leaves, rather than the withdrawal agreement. This means its existence would be uncertain at the point of withdrawal.
The Financial Times reports that negotiators are now looking at provisions for a customs union in the earlier withdrawal treaty, in addition to their backstop plan that would see Northern Ireland stay in the single market.
The customs union would not remove all checks on the Irish sea, such as those on certain animal products. But UK officials have indicated they are willing to accept such regulatory checks and do not see them as a red-line in the same way as customs checks.
But the DUP, the Northern Irish unionist party on whom Theresa May relies for a majority in the House of Commons, does not share this view, and has said it will resist all checks.
Ambassadors were said to have been briefed on the new plan at a meeting this week. UK officials will indicate next week whether they are open to the compromise.
But even if accepted it is very likely to face opposition from Conservative eurosceptics, who are resolutely opposed to a customs union with the EU and believe it must be specifically time-limited.
“The same fundamental problems are there,” the Financial Times quoted one EU diplomat briefed on the plan as saying.
“They’ve played around with the ingredients to the deal.”
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said yesterday that there was only around a week left to do a deal before the end of November, the new unofficial deadline for an agreement.
It comes as a row brews over fishing rights for EU boats in British waters after Brexit.
EU leaders had said “existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained” as part of any deal. The Sun reports that EU officials still see the issue as a “priority” in the talks.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies