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Fresh Brexit deal hope with offer of border compromise

By Philip Ryan

There are fresh hopes of a Brexit deal as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier offered the UK an olive branch on the Irish border.

Mr Barnier briefed EU ambassadors on Wednesday during a meeting in Paris on plans to offer Prime Minister Theresa May a UK-wide customs arrangement while a new trade deal is being negotiated.

The offer would see an invisible border maintained in Northern Ireland while also removing the need for customs check-in ports or airports either side of the Irish Sea.

The proposal would be welcomed by business owners and farmers who fear the introduction of trade tariffs will severely damage their profit margins.

It also opens up the possibility of a deal being struck before the end of the month with November 21 being tipped as a possible date for an EU summit on Brexit.

However, there are concerns Mrs May will not be able to sell the deal to hardline Brexiteers who fear such an arrangement would permanently tie Britain to the EU.

Negotiators in Brussels and Dublin hope the deal would appease the DUP who adamantly oppose any border down the Irish Sea.

The tentative proposal - which the Irish government is supporting - would see Northern Ireland remain in a full customs union with the EU and adhere to single market rules on goods and agriculture.

Meanwhile, the rest of the UK would sign up to what is being described as a 'bare bones' customs arrangement involving tariffs being charged on goods coming in from outside the EU.

The exact legal details of the proposed arrangement have yet to be negotiated, but Britain may be able to enter into trade talks with other countries while it also discusses its future relationship with the EU. This would be a major step forward in negotiations but EU negotiators are anxious to maintain the integrity of the custom union and are eager to ensure the UK is not given an advantage over remaining member states on trade.

The proposed fall back customs arrangement or what is known as the 'backstop' would remain in place until the EU and the UK agree a post-Brexit trade deal. However, Brexiteers fear the deal would tie Britain indefinitely to the EU.

Meanwhile, a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will be held in Dublin today. The UK Government will be represented at the event by Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley, who will meet Tanaiste Simon Coveney and Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

The group will discuss efforts to restore the Stormont institutions along with talks on security cooperation on both sides of the border. Officially, Brexit is not a topic for discussion. However, it is likely ministers will use the opportunity to discuss the negotiations with their Irish counterparts.

Last night, Mr Coveney said the talks "demonstrates that, despite the current challenges, both the Irish and UK governments are committed to developing the relationship between our countries and looking at ways to maintain and deepen our engagement".

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