May finds cabinet compromise with Brexit fall-back plan
Prime Minister Theresa May revealed plans Thursday for Britain to temporarily align with EU customs rules after Brexit as a fall-back option to resolve the Irish border problem, but only to 2021 in what was viewed as a compromise with eurosceptic ministers.
The so-called backstop proposal was published after last-minute wrangling over the wording with Brexit Secretary David Davis, who was reported to have been considering resigning unless it included a time limit.
Brussels has proposed that Northern Ireland stay aligned with the EU until another way is found to avoid customs checks with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.
London says this is unacceptable, offering instead a “temporary customs arrangement” for the whole of Britain that would “maintain the status quo for traders in respect of customs processes”.
May hopes to resolve the border issue with a wider trade deal between the EU and Britain, but has agreed to the need for a plan B if this is delayed or does not happen.
“The UK is clear that the temporary customs arrangement, should it be needed, should be time limited,” said the document.
“The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest” — a year after the end of the post-Brexit transition period.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, welcomed the plan, saying on Twitter that it would be examined with three questions in mind. “
Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU (single market / customs union)? Is it an all-weather backstop?” he said.
The Irish government — which is pressing for “substantial progress” on the issue by an EU summit later this month — said it would consider the proposals.
However, the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, warned against trying to impose a time limit, saying: “A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop.”
– Fudged document –
The idea of the backstop is controversial with eurosceptics, who fear it will keep Britain tied to the EU’s rules for years after it leaves the bloc on March 29, 2019.
Reports that Davis might quit unless there was a time limit have been swirling for several days.
His chief of staff, Stewart Jackson, tweeted Thursday that there had been a “helpful dialogue” and the paper now included more detail on “the time limited nature of our proposal”.
“This is a clear compromise to keep David from resigning, but it does undermine Theresa hugely,” one pro-European MP in May’s Conservative Party said.
Others questioned the substance of the proposal. “
After weeks of the government negotiating with itself, the fudged document they have produced doesn’t engage with any of the key Brexit dilemmas,” said opposition Labour MP Chris Leslie.
“It is highly unlikely to lead to anything but more gridlock in the ongoing talks with the EU.”
May also held separate meetings on Thursday with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, both leading eurosceptics.
On Wednesday reporters asked Davis if he would quit if the backstop did not have his explicit approval, replying: “That’s a question I think for the prime minister, to be honest.”
Asked if she expected Davis to remain in his position on Thursday, May’s spokeswoman said: “Yes… of course.”
All sides in the Brexit negotiations have committed to avoiding any physical infrastructure on the Irish border, where free movement of people and goods is viewed as key to peace on the island.
But the government is struggling to find a way to fulfil this commitment while sticking to its plan to leave the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit.