UK says Border question may not be resolved before Brexit

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein dismiss technology solution in North as fantasy

Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis said he was confident a technology solution can be found to maintain open border.

Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis said he was confident a technology solution can be found to maintain open border.

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Brexit Secretary David Davis has suggested the thorny question of how to avoid a hard border with Ireland might still not be resolved when the UK leaves the European Union next March.

He said a solution for the border won’t really be needed until the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1st, 2021, because the UK will effectively remain inside the customs union and single market during this interim phase.

But his comment - to a panel of members of parliament on Wednesday - has dramatic implications for what Brexit might look like.

It suggests that the UK accepts it may have to agree to an unpalatable backstop plan for keeping Northern Ireland - and possibly the whole UK - in many parts of the customs union and single market rules indefinitely.

If an alternative answer can’t be agreed, the UK will have to take a leap of faith, leave the EU next March and hope that it can reach a deal on the Irish Border before the end of the following year.

Further complicating this picture is UK prime minister Theresa May’s stated refusal to accept the EU backstop plan as it currently stands.

Mr Davis called the backstop solution a “reserve parachute” and said “nobody sees that as the most desirable outcome”. Supporters of it are those “who want to keep us in the single market at any price,” he said.

Ms May and Mr Davis say the way to resolve the Irish issue is by agreeing a comprehensive new trade agreement with the EU, resulting in no tariffs and a “frictionless” border.

Publicly the Irish Government agrees with them - the best solution would be through a broader trade deal.

But some Brexit officials in Dublin and Brussels doubt this is realistic, and think the backstop won’t merely be Mr Davis’ “reserve parachute,” but rather the system that ultimately comes into operation.

Mr Davis also revealed that there’s an argument going on between negotiators over what the backstop plan should require. The EU wants “harmonisation” of Northern Ireland’s trade rules with those of the EU - meaning that the same rules should apply on both sides of the Border.

In contrast, the UK wants alignment to mean only that the “outcomes” on both sides of the Border are the same, even if the rules are different, he said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said “sufficient and substantial” progress on the Border issue is needed by the time European leaders gather in June.

Mr Davis said he was confident a technology solution can be found to maintain an open border. Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald branded Mr Davis’s stance on technology as “the stuff of Alice in Wonderland”.

Mr Varadkar told the Dail he did not share Mr Davis’s view. “I am not aware of the existence of the technology that secretary of state Davis seems to believe exists,” he said.

“We have always said there cannot be a technical solution to the Irish Border challenge - it requires a political and legal solution and that’s what we have been working towards.”

One option May’s officials favour as a backstop guarantee is to keep the entire UK inside those rules of the customs union and single market that make an open border with Ireland possible. But to euroskeptic Tories, this would defeat the entire point of Brexit.

Separately, business lobby group CBI Northern Ireland will hold its annual dinner on Thursday. CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn will say it is “time to replace warm words with wise decisions”.

“Don’t throw away a generation of progress in Northern Ireland on the back of Brexit. This is the moment to put politics and ideology aside, and end the prevarication.

“We at the CBI have said that a new customs union with the EU will help keep the Border open and allow Northern Ireland to continue to prosper. Based on current evidence it is the only way to keep the Border fully open.

“This is not a dogmatic view but a pragmatic one. Technology solutions may be ready one day but they are not yet. And trade deals around the world may one day compensate for lost EU trade. But that day is not yet here.” - Bloomberg and PA

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