Belfast Telegraph

Brexit: EU rejects May's Ireland border 'backstop' within 24 hours

By Jon Stone

Brussels has rejected Theresa May's new plan for the Irish border, according to reports.

The Prime Minister's customs proposal was apparently rebuffed less than 24 hours after she set it out in a bid to placate Brexiteers in her cabinet.

European Commission officials claimed Mrs May's plan would be unacceptable and would go back on previous UK commitments.

A day earlier, the PM had said the "backstop" plan to avoid a hard border - 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 a bid 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 looks increasingly likely to come into play, with no other plan for the border in sight and Mrs May's cabinet in turmoil.

European Commission officials close to the talks said 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, Mrs May sought to calm their fears, telling reporters: "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 can be ended only if another solution is found.

A 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."

It has since become clear that the UK and EU have begun to interpret the agreement in different ways, however. Downing Street said the entire UK will stay in alignment under the backstop, while Brussels said the agreement was intended only to maintain full alignment in Northern Ireland. The difference in interpretation comes because the UK also desperately wants to prevent customs checks at Irish Sea ports. The DUP, on whose votes the Conservatives rely for a Commons majority, have threatened to block any plan that puts any checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

  • Brussels is, however, concerned that the UK would gain access to the single market without having to commit to its four freedoms - effectively gaining a preferential deal.

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