The EU has published its plan to effectively keep Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union after Brexit, in a 120-page draft withdrawal agreement.
The territory of Northern Ireland would be considered part of the EU’s customs territory after Brexit, with checks required on goods coming in from the rest of the UK, under the text produced by the European commission.
A raft of single market legislation will also apply to ensure the province stays in lockstep with laws of the Republic of Ireland that are relevant to the north-south flow of trade.
“A common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established,” the draft says. “The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protect.”
At a press conference in Brussels, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said nothing in the text should “be a surprise” given what was agreed between in December between the EU and the UK.
Answering questions from reporters, he said he wasn’t trying to provoke anyone. He also rejected claims of EU arrogance in dealing with the UK, while calling on British prime minister Theresa May to “pick up the pace” of negotiations.
The draft text gives legal effect to the pre-Christmas deal on the issues of citizens’ rights post Brexit, the financial settlement between the EU and UK and issues specific to the island of Ireland.
The draft agreement has been agreed among the remaining 27 EU members and is still subject to negotiation with the UK.
The DUP, which supports Ms May in a confidence and supply agreement in Westminster, has already objected to the contents of the text.
The deal contains three ways in which a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic can be avoided: through an overall EU-UK trade deal, bespoke arrangements proposed by the UK or through the so-called “backstop” option which says there should be “full alignment” between North and South if there is no deal.
Mr Barnier said discussions on all three options could continue in parallel, and this was also reflected in the draft text published Wednesday, which contained a protocol on the third option.
“Discussions on the other scenarios may continue to be pursued in parallel, but… this protocol is based on the third scenario of maintaining full alignment with those rules of the Union’s internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 [BELFAST]Agreement, and that it applies unless and until an alternative arrangement implementing another scenario is agreed,” it says.
The text adds: “A common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established. The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protected in accordance with this Chapter.”
Mr Barnier said this is the “backstop backstop solution that we have to put in the withdrawal agreement”. He said there are two crucial ways in which a hard border can be avoided in such a scenario.
One is to ensure “full alignment” on certain goods, while another is to ensure a common customs code.
“My attitude is and always will be: key calm and be pragmatic,” Mr Barnier said, adding that he would meet Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin and Arlene Foster of the DUP next week.
He said “daily life around the border should continue as before”.
“We stand by our commitment to discuss all three options…in parallel,” he continued.
The first option - the final trade deal - would not be in place at the official time of Brexit in March 2019, he noted. On the option of technological solutions, he said: “We look forward to receiving these proposals”
Welcoming the text, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said “the draft includes a protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the draft agreement, and gives legal effect to the firm commitments made in December”.
“This represents a logical outworking of the commitments made by the UK, including on protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We have always been clear that our preference is to avoid a hard border through a wider future relationship agreement between the EU and the UK, a view we share with the British government.
“We are also committed to exploring specific solutions to be proposed by the UK. At the same time, there is now the necessary legal provision to implement the backstop of maintaining full alignment in Northern Ireland with the rules of the single market and customs union necessary to protect North South cooperation and avoid a hard border. This is very much a default and would only apply should it prove necessary.
“This is about delivering on our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, no less, no more.”
There is no mention in the paper of the Downing Street’s promise in the joint report to keep the whole of the UK in regulatory alignment with the EU to avoid a border emerging in the Irish Sea. Brussels regards that as a domestic deal brokered by the UK government with the DUP.