British and European Union officials are locked in talks in Brussels over a compromise Brexit deal that could see the UK remain temporarily in the EU’s customs regime, people familiar with the negotiations said.
With just a week before a crucial summit of EU leaders that could determine the outcome of Brexit, officials from each side are wrangling over a potential solution to the biggest sticking point: how to keep the Irish border free from customs infrastructure. The UK is now unlikely to present any fresh proposals publicly and negotiators have not waited for one, the people said.
UK and EU diplomats said that intense negotiating over the next five days could result in a provisional agreement on the issue on Monday. However, while there is positive momentum, many issues remain unresolved, they said.
“Decisive progress must be made” before next week’s summit, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. He was speaking after the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier updated commissioners on the talks.
The negotiations are focussing on the so-called “backstop” for the Irish border – an insurance clause to make sure that whatever future trade deal is eventually drawn up between the two sides, no hard border will go up on the island of Ireland. It would only apply as a last resort in case an overarching trade deal doesn’t address the issue.
Under the UK’s latest plan, Theresa May’s government would back down on opposition to new regulatory checks on some items moving between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. In exchange, May’s team would need the EU to compromise and allow the whole of the UK, not just Northern Ireland, to stay in the bloc’s customs regime.
WILLINGNESS TO COMPROMISE
That’s thrown up legal problems that the negotiators say must be resolved if there’s to be a deal. EU officials say only Northern Ireland-specific solutions can be part of the Brexit divorce agreement. UK-wide provisions must form part of the wider political declaration on the two side’s future relationship, but that’s not legally binding.
One solution floated by officials is to have only the regulatory checks element — relating to items such as food and livestock moving across the Irish Sea — to be set out in detail in the divorce agreement, officials said. There would be a legally binding reference to the customs arrangement, which would be described in more detail in the declaration on future ties.
The issue is sensitive because the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s government, says it won’t accept a deal that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.
But after meeting EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, DUP lea-der Arlene Foster signalled a willingness to compromise.
“You should not say ‘which is worse and which is better, a border in the Irish Sea or a border on the island of Ireland?” Foster told reporters. “It’s not a binary choice.”
The UK believes it can argue for different treatment of the two types of checks by saying that regulatory controls are a matter for the quasi-autonomous Northern Ireland assembly, while customs arran- gements remain the prerogative of the central government in London. In London, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab indicated he still favoured separating the customs regime from the regulatory checks.