U.K. Proposes Solution to Brexit Deadlock Over Irish Border

The U.K. is proposing a new plan to kick-start stalled Brexit talks and make progress on the vexed issue of the Irish border as negotiations resume in Brussels this week. 

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

Brexit Secretary David Davis said he wanted to “move quickly” when talks restart Wednesday in order to reach a solution to avoid a hard land border with Ireland once the U.K. withdraws from the bloc.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s team of negotiators have drafted a new template for how the U.K. and the EU should work together on Britain’s two favored options for addressing the border question, according to a person familiar with the matter. Any solution will also aim to bridge the divide between warring factions in May’s cabinet.

“We’ve put forward proposals on the future and look forward to making progress this week,” Davis said Monday on Twitter. “Our solutions must respect the EU single market and the integrity of the U.K.”

Why Ireland’s Border Is Brexit’s Intractable Puzzle: QuickTake

Speaking close to the Irish border Monday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier promised to work “day and night” for a solution in the weeks leading up to the June summit of EU leaders. Davis said he agreed with Barnier on the “need to move quickly in discussions’’ and the “importance of a workable backstop.”

The U.K.’s preferred solution — known as Option A — is to use a sweeping new free-trade agreement and customs deal with the EU to avoid the need for tariffs and goods checks at the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

If this can’t be agreed in time, Option B would be to use technological solutions and “trusted trader” schemes to minimize checks on goods at the border, under the British plan. 

Two people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named, said the U.K.’s new plan involved working on options A and B together, a move which could help end the deadlock for May in London as she seeks domestic support for her negotiating stance. Parts of Option B could enhance Option A, according to the plan.

Backstop or Plan A

The EU insists there must be a “backstop” in case the U.K.’s plans don’t work — and EU officials in private say they expect the backstop will end up being used as they don’t think options A or B are feasible.

May has previously said she wants to keep the whole U.K. aligned with all those EU customs and single market rules that would help avoid a border infrastructure, as a “backstop” option.

The EU has rejected this, saying any solution must only apply to Northern Ireland, and that the backstop should see the region remain part of the EU’s customs zone.

May, in turn, has explicitly rejected that outcome, warning it would effectively result in a new goods border in the Irish Sea, splitting Northern Ireland from the British mainland, and undermining the country’s constitution.

Read more: May Loses Ally at Critical Time for Brexit With Cabinet Divided

This week’s talks come at a delicate time for May’s government, which is engulfed in a controversy over targets for removing immigrants. Amber Rudd quit as home secretary Sunday night after two weeks of pressure over the issue, exposing her predecessor in the role — Prime Minister May — to more scrutiny over her record.

There are concerns on the EU side that the furor, and local elections Thursday, are distracting May’s team from focusing on making progress on Brexit, according to a diplomat familiar with the European side of the talks.

The diplomat said the U.K. is working up a more detailed version of a close customs deal to avoid the need for frontier checks, but no firm offer has yet been proposed. May’s top team of cabinet ministers — including Rudd’s replacement, Sajid Javid — will meet Wednesday to discuss which of the customs options the U.K. should choose.

May is said to favor a close customs partnership, which she sees as fitting with Option A for the Irish border, but Brexit supporting ministers including Davis, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove are said to believe it won’t work.

These officials want May to adopt a looser overall U.K.-EU customs arrangement, aligned with Option B, which would involve minimizing border checks through the smart use of technology.


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