The Independent: Theresa May to accept checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in major concession to avoid Brexit no-deal20 September 2018 | 04:22 | FOCUS News Agency
Under proposals to be brought forward by the UK government, Britain is expected to accept some checks taking place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The plans are likely to spark angry reaction from Brexiteers and the DUP, on whom the PM relies for a Commons majority, who have said that they will not accept any checks or different treatment for Northern Ireland.
The concession comes as Mrs May gave a tough-talking dinner speech to EU leaders in Salzburg in which she said the European Commission’s proposal “that I should assent for a legal separation of the United Kingdom into two customs territories is not credible”.
But the PM’s carefully-worded attack on the EU’s “backstop” notably left the door open to regulatory checks at Irish Sea ports, which are technically different but similar to customs checks.
The shift, combined with other moves by the EU to “de-dramatise” its own backstop plan, means there is now a real possibility that both sides could meet in the middle on the issue – which would allow them to prevent a hard border with Ireland and avoid a no-deal Brexit.
A senior UK government official speaking in the margins of the Salzburg summit said the government would bring forward new proposals for its own backstop, and indicated that regulatory checks on the Irish sea were now on the table.
“There are checks which take place already [between Northern Ireland and Great Britain] in relation to some agricultural products,” the official said.
“On the Irish backstop, we have put forward our proposal in relation to customs backstop. We’ve been having discussions on that with the EU for a number of months now.
“We’ve always said that we will need to bring forward further proposals in relation to the regulatory aspects of the backstop. That will happen.”
The official insisted that customs checks at ports would undermine the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK and would not be drawn on why the Government did not consider regulatory checks to do so as well.
The looming concession by the UK comes after months of work by negotiators on both sides to decide which if any checks could be moved away from ports in a bid to "de-dramatise" them.
Michel Barnier also softened the EU’s stance on Tuesday night, stating that “most checks can take place away from the border – at the company premises or in the markets”.
The Independent understands that some officials regard it as easier to move customs compliance checks away from ports, but not regulatory checks. The combination of concessions – with Britain accepting regulatory checks at ports and the EU moving some customs checks in-land – therefore appears to clear the path for a potential solution.
Whether the compromise backstop would get through the House of Commons is another matter. Mrs May has no majority without the DUP’s nine MPs, but the party’s leader, Arlene Foster, has said “our only red line is that we are not treated any different from the rest of the United Kingdom, that there are no trade barriers put up between Northern Ireland and our biggest market – which, of course, is Great Britain”.
Speaking of Mrs May over the summer, Ms Foster said: “I have confidence that she knows that she cannot bring forward anything that will breach that red line or we simply will not be able to support them.”
The movement in talks comes after Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, warned the UK publicly that the UK policy on Ireland, as well as the PM’s Chequers proposals on trade, needed to be reworked and further negotiated.
Solving the Irish border issue would remove the biggest stumbling block to a withdrawal agreement, though a host of other issues – such as whether the UK will continue to accept EU protected designations of origin and how the withdrawal agreement will be governed – are yet to be worked out.
Negotiators also want to come to an agreement about what Britain’s future relationship with the EU will look like, but with the Chequers trade proposals roundly rejected by the Commission and little hope of coming up with a detailed plan, there is disagreement about how much detail that statement should include.
Some member states say the plan should be permitted to be vague to help prevent a no-deal, while France and other member states argue it would be wrong to kick the trade talks can down the road.
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