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EU to reject PM's call for Northern Ireland 'backstop' to be time limited

Jon Stone

Brussels has rejected Theresa May’s new customs proposal less than 24 hours after the prime minister set it out in a bid to placate Brexiteers in her cabinet.

European Commission officials told The Independent Ms May’s plan would be unacceptable and would go back on previous commitments made by British negotiators.

A day earlier the prime minister had said the “backstop” plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland – which keeps Britain in alignment with the single market and customs union if no other agreement is reached – would be time limited.

The move was an attempt to assuage Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, who fear that it would become a backdoor way to keep Britain tied indefinitely to the EU through the customs union and single market.

The controversial fallback arrangements look increasingly likely to come into play, with no other plan for the Northern Ireland border in sight and Ms May’s cabinet deadlocked on what Britain’s future customs relationship with the EU should be.

European Commission officials close to the talks told The Independent that British negotiators had already made written commitments for the backstop to apply “unless and until” another solution was found in Northern Ireland, and that there was no way it could be time limited.

Facing a backlash over the plan from her pro-Brexit ministers, the prime minister sought to calm their fears, telling reporters on Monday: “If it is necessary, it will be in a very limited set of circumstances for a limited time.”

But one Brussels source said: “It will apply for as long as there is no credible alternative. It can’t be time limited or it’s not a backstop.”

Commission officials have pointed to the first page of the draft withdrawal agreement, which includes a note, signed off by both sides, stating that the backstop alignment can be ended only if another solution is found.

“The negotiators agree that a legally operative version of the ‘backstop’ solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in line with paragraph 49 of the joint report, should be agreed as part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found,” a note on page 1 of the withdrawal agreement says.

A UK government spokesperson said: “The prime minister set out her position yesterday. The fallback solution put forward by the EU is not acceptable, and that’s why we will be bringing forward our own proposal. We want to make progress as soon as possible.”

Cabinet ministers including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have signalled their unease at the backstop plan in recent days. The foreign secretary issued an apparent veiled warning to the PM while speaking to reporters on a trip to Latin America, warning her against “betrayal”.

“Brexiteers fearing betrayal over the customs backstop must understand that the prime minister has been very clear that neither option is an outcome we desire – we want a deal with the EU and she will deliver it,” he said.

“I’m convinced that the prime minister will be true to her promises of a Brexit deal that sees Britain come out of the customs union and single market, have borders as frictionless as possible, reject European Court of Justice interference, control immigration and free to conduct unhindered free trade deals across the world.”

Independent News Service

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