Brexit backstop deal set to cover all of UK

Guarantee’s specific application to NI may be replaced by Britain-wide customs control

The European Commission's chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, says the EU and Britain are still in technical negotiations to seal a Brexit deal. Video: EU Commission

 

The final deal on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is set to include a backstop that will apply to the entire United Kingdom, but will have additional measures for Northern Ireland to ensure there is no hard border.

The Irish Times understands a common view is emerging in Dublin, London and Brussels on the contentious issue.

A Northern Ireland-specific backstop – a guarantee to avoid a hard border even if future trade talks fail – would effectively give way to one that would apply across the entirety of Britain for customs only.

However, the withdrawal agreement would also contain additional measures that would apply on the Irish Border. These are understood to include some extra customs rules as well as rules to ensure the North’s regulations remain in alignment with EU standards.

A senior government source said such “add-ons” do not “change the fact that Northern Ireland remains in the customs territory of the UK”.

“You have one backstop – the main element of which is a UK-wide customs union – to be extended with additional measures for Northern Ireland,” the source added.

It had been previously mooted that there would be effectively two backstops – one for Northern Ireland and one for the UK – but government figures say this is now unlikely.

Still cautious

Sources in Dublin and Brussels are still cautious about the prospect of a European Council summit being convened later this month to sign off on the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

British prime minister Theresa May is expected to brief her cabinet on Tuesday, with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, updating ambassadors of the EU27 on Wednesday.

Although there is some scepticism that a legally tight customs arrangement between the EU and the UK can be finalised in a short time, Dublin believes it is possible with “political will”.

It was also disclosed that the key stumbling block to a deal is now when the provisions of the backstop will end.

Agreements already reached between the EU and UK say it will remain “unless and until” another solution to avoid a hard border is found, either by way of a future trade deal or by technological solutions.

Transition phase

The UK formally leaves the EU next March and will enter a transition phase which will see it stay in the single market and customs union until the end of 2020. If a future trade deal has not been concluded at that stage, the backstop will then kick in.

It is understood the UK has been pushing for a set time when the backstop will cease to apply but Dublin and Brussels are firm that “unless and until” must remain.

“That is not resolved yet,” said one well-placed source. “It will only be resolved when they accept a formula of ‘unless and until’. It is not a backstop if it expires.”

Periodic assessments of the talks on the EU-UK future trade deal may be made, and the UK may also have the chance to extend the transition period before it ends in 2020.

It is now accepted that regulatory checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland can be done at factories and shops rather than at Border crossings, a development of Mr Barnier’s “de-dramatisation” initiative.