© Bloomberg. Michel Barnier Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
(Bloomberg) — European Union officials are exploring how to unlock a wider Brexit deal by making the so-called Irish border backstop more palatable to the U.K., according to a person familiar with deliberations.
In February, the EU laid out a detailed plan for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, a proposal that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs union and parts of the single market if needed. But that approach would amount to erecting a customs frontier between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, which U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May says is unacceptable.
The EU accepts that its original version was heavy-handed and indicated a lack of trust in Britain, according to the person, who asked not be identified because deliberations are confidential and no formal alternative proposals have yet been tabled. Still, there’s no question of the bloc backing down on the principles behind the backstop.
The search for a version of the backstop more politically acceptable to the U.K. is key to the entire Brexit process. The Irish question must be solved to allow the two sides to reach an accord on a withdrawal agreement and avert the risk of Britain crashing out of the bloc without a deal.
The U.K. side is also working on proposals to find a solution to the border problem. But May needs to keep her allies in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party onside as without them she doesn’t have a majority in Parliament. For the DUP, any barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain would be unacceptable.
DUP lawmakers are getting suspicious about the concessions the U.K. government may be prepared to offer the EU. Bloomberg reported in July that one option being considered is keeping Northern Ireland aligned with some EU rules after Brexit and setting up regulatory checks — but not a customs border — between Northern Ireland and Britain. DUP lawmakers repeatedly questioned Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab on Tuesday as to whether there would be a regulatory border down the Irish Sea. Raab stopped short of ruling it out.
“We will not allow anything to be done that would threaten either the territorial or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom,” he said.
Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said he’s open to suggestions on how to solve the problem and in July said a way forward could be found. “We need to de-dramatize things,” he said.
The EU’s willingness to help May lies behind Barnier’s request last week for more detail from Britain on what crosses into Northern Ireland from the mainland, the person said. There may be many areas where there’s little trade, for example, which would mean those sectors would need minimal monitoring on an ongoing basis, the person said.
A second area being explored is the circumstances under which the backstop would be triggered. If the EU and U.K. government can demonstrate that relatively few triggers for the backstop are in play, that may help sell it to the DUP.
Still, there’s a real risk the Northern Irish party will reject any form of a backstop, no matter how watered down, the person said.
While the Irish government still wants a backstop to ensure no border re-emerges after Brexit, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has also said he’s not “hung up” on the precise version of the legal text. What’s important is the outcome, he said.
Relatively little progress is expected in coming weeks, the person said, with only a cursory discussion on Brexit expected at an EU leaders summit in Salzburg, Austria, this month. November is a more realistic timeframe for a deal, according to the person.
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