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The biggest obstacle to a Brexit deal

8 September 2018

10:31 AM

8 September 2018

10:31 AM

The UK and the EU are playing a dangerous game of chicken over the Irish border, I say in The Sun this morning. There has been almost no progress on this issue over the summer and without a deal on it, there can’t be a withdrawal agreement.

One of those involved in the negotiations on the British side tells me, the EU ‘believe we will blink first’. But that won’t happen. One Brexit red line that Theresa May is adamant she’ll never cross is her insistence that no British PM could sign the EU’s proposed text on the Irish border, which would see Northern Ireland become part of the customs territory of the EU.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is prepared to produce a de-dramatised version of the backstop. This would concentrate on the 16 areas where the EU thinks there would need to be checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. The hope is that the dry, technical nature of this document will make it less controversial.

But the UK will still struggle to sign up to this backstop. Why, because it would still leave the threat of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. The UK government could accept some regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But it couldn’t accept Northern Ireland being part of a different customs territory to the rest of the country.

Senior figures on the UK side are instead mulling an approach where the checks are split three-ways between the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic. Their thinking is that the point of the backstop is to keep the Irish border as it is today but not to create a backdoor into the EU for goods. If the responsibility for that was split three ways with the UK doing regulatory checks on goods going into Northern Ireland and the Republic taking care to ensure that all goods from the North exported via its ports were properly declared, then you would have a solution that was acceptable to the UK.

The EU will be very wary of this idea. It doesn’t want the Irish to have to carry out any additional checks. It also wants to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, and the Northern Ireland question helps them in their attempt to do this.

But unless some progress is made on the Northern Irish border then the two sides will end up with a no deal that neither of them is prepared for.

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