May secures ministers’ backing over Brexit backstop
The Prime Minister admitted that keeping the UK in the EU customs union beyond 2020 was ‘unpalatable’, but promised it would only be temporary.
Theresa May has secured approval from senior ministers for a “backstop” arrangement which could keep the UK in a customs union with the EU beyond the end of 2020.
The Prime Minister met twice with David Davis, amid reports the Brexit Secretary was considering resigning unless she set a clear time limit on the temporary customs arrangement.
But there was no fixed deadline in the document published later, which said only the UK “expects” a final customs solution to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.
The document represents the UK’s counter to an EU proposal to keep Northern Ireland alone in the customs union after Brexit, which was rejected outright by Mrs May because it would draw a border down the Irish Sea.
In a letter to Tory MPs, obtained by The Times, the Prime Minister described the UK proposal as “unpalatable but at worst temporary” and “in no way the Government’s intended or desired” result.
The Government did not expect it to be implemented, as it intended to have a permanent customs arrangement in place by the end of 2020, she said. But she said it was right to have a fallback option ready in case the process was delayed “for technical reasons”.
The Government was “committed to making sure that the future arrangements are in place by the end of December 2021 at the very latest” and to ensuring the UK leaves the customs union.
EXC: How Theresa May is selling today to her MPs pic.twitter.com/zNLkfBMjiW— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) June 7, 2018
The development came as Mrs May braced herself for possible defeat in the Commons next week on an amendment which would require her to try to negotiate a permanent customs union with the remaining EU.
With Labour MPs whipped to back the Lords amendment, Tory Remainers are understood to believe they have enough support to mount an effective rebellion.
However, Mrs May is expected to win a second vote on membership of the European Economic Area, after Jeremy Corbyn ordered his MPs to abstain in favour of an alternative Labour motion.
Under the new backstop proposals, if no agreement on customs has been implemented by the end of 2020, a temporary arrangement would ensure that no “tariffs, quotas, rules of origin (or) customs processes” applied to UK-EU trade.
At the same time the UK would be able to strike free trade agreements with other countries.
Rather than setting a firm deadline for the end of the backstop, the document states: “The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU.”
A source close to Mr Davis said there had been “a back and forth” on the wording of the paper, which “now expresses, in much more detail, the time-limited nature of our proposal”.
The Prime Minister also held separate face-to-face discussions with leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.
None of the three ministers threatened to resign during the discussions, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said.
Dr Fox later told the BBC that the new proposal ensured that Britain would be “leaving the EU and any implementation and subsequent arrangements by the end of 2021”.
But John Longworth, of the Leave Means Leave campaign, said Mrs May appeared “obsessed with the damage-limitation mantra of the Remainers” and was leading the country into a Brussels trap.
“The EU is like the Hotel California – we will never leave,” he said. “It is now time to declare for a World Trade deal and prepare in earnest to just leave in March 2019.”
Difficult to see how UK proposal on customs aspects of IE/NI backstop will deliver a workable solution to avoid a hard border & respect integrity of the SM/CU. A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop, unless the definitive arrangement is the same as the backstop. #Brexit— Guy Verhofstadt (@guyverhofstadt) June 7, 2018
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer described the PM’s concession as “embarrassing”.
“With the threat of a Cabinet resignation, Theresa May has signed up to a flawed proposal which is inconsistent with her earlier commitments,” he said.
The European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said it was “difficult to see” how the UK proposal could deliver “a workable solution” to avoid a hard border.
“A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop, unless the definitive arrangement is the same as the backstop,” he said.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is due to discuss the proposal with Mr Davis in Brussels next week, ahead of a crunch summit of EU leaders on June 28.
Mr Barnier said they would be examining them in the light of three questions: “Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the single market/customs union? Is it an all-weather backstop?”
I welcome publication of #UK proposal on customs aspects of IE/NI backstop.— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) June 7, 2018
We will examine it with 3 questions: is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU? Is it an all-weather backstop?
Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney warned that unless there was a legally-binding assurance that a hard border would be avoided “in all circumstances”, there could be no progress on other elements of the Brexit talks.
“Ireland and the commission have both stressed that substantial progress on the backstop is needed before the June European Council,” said Mr Coveney. “Clearly, a great deal of work remains to be done and this needs to be the highest priority for all sides in the weeks ahead.”