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Europe threatens to sink May's new plan over Irish border concern


Theresa May
Theresa May

By Jon Stone

The European Parliament has threatened to veto Theresa May's new Brexit plan if she does not come forward with a "credible" policy to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

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The body's Brexit steering group, chaired by co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt, met yesterday and said in a statement after the UK white paper was published that it would "not consent" to a deal "without a credible 'back-stop' provision for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border".

The intervention means there is likely to be further trouble ahead on the border issue - with the risk that the whole deal could be sunk over it.

UK officials in Brussels say they have no plans to bring forward new proposals on the border, having proposed a solution to it last month.

The EU raised serious concerns about that temporary customs plan at the time, including its time-limited nature and the lack of regulatory alignment, which would lead to border checks.

But yesterday British diplomats said they believed the new white paper on the future relationship would change the "dynamic" of talks and see Brussels look at their previous proposal in a new light.

Brussels officials close to talks expressed doubt that this would be the case.

The European Commission is understood to be working on revising its own Northern Ireland backstop plan, which Britain has rejected.

Theresa May has said that "no UK Prime Minister" could agree to it because it entails customs checks inside the UK, between Northern Ireland and Britain.

As Mrs May's Cabinet met at Chequers last Friday, European Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier urged the UK Government to think again, and suggested the issue should be "de-dramatised".

But senior Cabinet sources have said that even those in favour of a softer Brexit in the PM's inner circle would reject the plan.

The DUP, on which Mrs May relies for a majority in the House of Commons, has also said it would not accept the policy.

The European Parliament's Brexit steering group said it welcomed the new white paper as "a step towards establishing a new relationship between the UK and the EU".

But it added: "The Brexit steering group reiterated that negotiating a new relationship with the UK post-Brexit is conditional on an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on the basis of a withdrawal agreement.

"It reconfirmed the parliament's position expressed in its resolutions that it will not consent to a withdrawal agreement, including a transition period, without a credible 'back-stop' provision for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border to prevent a hard border and safeguard the integrity of the single market, faithfully reflecting the commitments entered into in the Joint Report of 8 December 2017.

"It urged the UK Government to clarify its positions on the 'backstop' so that the withdrawal agreement can be finalised as quickly as possible."

The European Parliament has a veto on the final deal and officials from the legislative body liaise closely with the European Commission during talks. The European Commission is yet to officially respond to the white paper in detail.

Mrs May's long-awaited plan met immediate resistance from Brexiteers in her own party, with Jacob Rees-Mogg declaring that it failed to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.

The plan was unveiled amid shambolic scenes in the House of Commons, as Speaker John Bercow suspended proceedings in the middle of a statement by new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab so that MPs could go and get a copy of the white paper he was announcing.

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