UK Brexit negotiators offered no new solutions to Irish border problem in talks

No changes to the draft withdrawal agreement were proposed, with negotiators trying to sell the UK customs partnership paper from last year

Jon Stone
Europe Correspondent
Friday 20 April 2018 17:53 BST
What is still needed to complete a deal with the EU?

British Brexit negotiators have offered no new specific solution to the Northern Ireland border in the weeks of talks since last month’s Brussels summit, The Independent understands.

Brussels sources with knowledge of the discussions said the UK had proposed no changes to the text of the draft withdrawal agreement relating to the border in the latest round of talks.

Instead, the UK team suggested eliminating the need for hard border with Ireland with a “customs partnership” between the EU and Britain that was immediately written off as a “non-starter” by European Commission officials.

The customs proposal suggested by the UK is understood to have been the same one drawn up by civil servants last year and released in a working paper in August 2017. The EU has previously rubbished such ideas in public and said that there would inevitably be “frictions” at borders if Britain leaves the customs union and single market, as Theresa May has pledged.

British diplomats in Brussels are downplaying the apparent lack of progress on solving the border issue and say that talks on resolving the border via the future trade relationship are at a very early stage. UK officials confirmed that negotiators discussed the UK customs paper drawn up last year.

Commenting on the talks at a regular briefing of journalists in Westminster, the prime minister’s spokesperson told reporters: “The two proposals we have put forward remain the basis for our negotiation position and what the PM set out at Mansion House.”

After meetings in Brussels at the start of the week UK negotiators have now gone back to London and are expected to return after a week of taking stock. The European Commission is understood to have asked for fresh proposals from the UK side.

The EU has said a final deal has to be struck on Britain’s withdrawal by October, with an interim summit in June as a waypoint. But with the clock ticking, there has still be little progress on the border question this year, despite the opening of talks about the future relationship this week.

Under the Good Friday Agreement there can be no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and both sides agree that none should return.

The EU however says the customs union and single market must have external border checks to maintain their integrity. Commission negotiators effectively proposed moving the customs checks to the Irish seat between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but Theresa May refused the approach after pressure from her allies in the DUP.

The draft withdrawal agreement as envisaged by the EU says Britain can either come up with a specific solution to the border problem, remove the need for a hard border by negotiating a close trade relationship with the EU, or revert to a “backstop” option that would keep Britain in full alignment with relevant EU regulations.

What is still needed to complete a deal with the EU?

But with Ms May having rules out membership of the customs union and single market the chance of solving the issue using the future relationship looks slim, barring a U-turn.

An account of the talks briefed to the Daily Telegraph newspaper suggested that UK proposals were “annihilated” by EU officials and that they had been met with a “detailed and forensic rebuttal” of the longstanding customs partnership plan. British diplomats said this did not reflect their understanding of the meeting.

A spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the European Union said: “We have been clear that we will protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. That commitment was set out in December’s joint report which also includes our guarantee of avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“As the PM’s letter to Donald Tusk said, we have made our position on aspects of the draft Commission Protocol clear. We have agreed that the areas covered in the draft must reflect those that meet our shared commitments. And we are continuing an intensive work programme to engage on all the scenarios set out in the joint report."

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