Proposals that the UK would use the Irish "backstop" provisions in Britain as well as Northern Ireland after Brexit will simply not be acceptable, the EU told British negotiators at talks in Brussels this week.
A senior EU official on Thursday night described the proposals from prime minister Theresa May as a "fantasy".
The UK is proposing to maintain regulatory alignment with the whole of the EU for a limited period after transition out of the EU to avoid cutting the North off from the rest of the UK and to obviate the necessity for a border on the Irish Sea.
But its negotiators were told during three days of talks here that “regulatory alignment was not available on an all-UK basis”, because it would mean a form of cherry-picking and a breach of fundamental single market rules.
And the UK could not be allowed simply to commit to joint all-UK customs controls on a “time-limited basis” because they would “undermine the whole purpose of the guarantee”.
The EU official warned that progress on the Irish border – “let alone substantive progress” – was proving “elusive”.
The UK is suggesting the withdrawal agreement protocol and its backstop guarantee should include an assumption that an eventual alternative arrangement will be agreed for frictionless borders between the UK and the EU as a whole. But if such an agreement is not forthcoming, officials here say, there must be the backstop provisions to fall back on. Time-limiting their application would remove that guarantee.
In the Northern Ireland strand of the discussions, they had made progress on issues such as the single electricity market, and VAT rules, but had not discussed the “crunch” issues of the Border, regulatory alignment and customs.
The issue was raised, however, by the UK team in the discussion on the future relationship/trade agreement, where they said that Ms May was determined to implement the backstop on an all-UK basis “through the overall EU-UK relationship”.
The EU team said that the “backstop must be Northern Ireland-specific”.
“We have to do away with the fantasy that there is an all-UK solution to this,” the senior official said.
A senior official described the talks on the full range of Brexit issues, from Northern Ireland to the future relationship, as frustrating, observing that: "To paraphrase The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa, I have the impression that the UK thinks everything has to change on the EU's side so that everything can stay the same for the UK."
The Guardian reported senior sources at the Brexit department, however, rejecting the suggestion that Brussels had dismissed the UK's new backstop plan, suggesting that it was "simply a negotiating position" and that they believed the EU was open to the idea. "It's a public stance for them to take during the negotiation," one said.
A No 10 source added: “This is what they do every time. As usual we’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing they’ve said which concerns us.”
In their discussions of an overall trade deal, the UK rejected the suggestion from the EU of a free trade pact, and pressed their demands for a generalised system of mutual recognition and managed divergence. EU officials said that a system of mutual recognition, however, would not be available outside the single market – it would require higher external levels of trust than internally.