Backstop ‘alternatives’ could form basis of new EU-UK deal – Tory MP

Group proposing solutions to Border dilemma ‘advertise’ their ideas on visit to Dublin

Former British Conservative minister Greg Hands co-chairman of the Alternative Arrangements Commission, pictured in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Former British Conservative minister Greg Hands co-chairman of the Alternative Arrangements Commission, pictured in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

A former British Conservative minister backing “alternative arrangements” to the contentious “backstop”after Brexit believes they could form the basis of a new EU-UK deal.

Greg Hands, the Tory MP pushing proposals for a new solution to avoid a hard border after Brexit, said that keeping the backstop in the withdrawal agreement was “a sensitive matter” for the negotiations but suggested that it could remain and be replaced later by his group’s proposed alternative arrangements.

The backstop would keep the UK under EU economic rules if a future trade deal did not keep the Irish Border open but it has led British MPs to reject the agreement three times and stalled the Brexit process.

The Alternative Arrangements Commission - chaired by Mr Hands and Tory MP Nicky Morgan (who voted to remain in the EU) - has proposed measures that include special economic zones across the Border and a single UK-Ireland zone for food standards and animal health to avoid post-Brexit checks at the Border.

Mr Hands said the privately-funded commission would publish an alternative arrangements “protocol” later this month that could be worked into the existing agreement or form the basis of a new EU-UK deal.

“The solution lies somewhere in an area of keeping the backstop but having alternative arrangements supersede the backstop so you find some construct which just about clears all these sets of hurdles by just one millimetre to get a deal,” the Tory MP told The Irish Times on a visit to meet politicians.

The Conservative said the chances of a no-deal Brexit by the October 31st Brexit deadline was “very much there” and “a risk that is rising,” pointing to the promises of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt - the Tory contenders to be the next British prime minister - to leave the EU without a deal if there no better agreement.

He acknowledged that there was “work to be done” on the alternative arrangements - pitched by the group as presenting “practical measures” rather than “high-tech unicorns” - and that the commission members were in Dublin in an effort to find “an agreement that will work for all of the parties.”

In a nod to the scale of the challenge to break the Brexit deadlock, Mr Hands said that finding a solution would be like “landing an A380 at a regional airstrip” - a reference to the world’s largest passenger airplane.

The Government has consistently rejected alternative arrangements that would maintain a soft border on the island of Ireland and insisted that there can be no withdrawal agreement without the backstop.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last month that alternative arrangements could not be in place in time for the Brexit deadline at the end of October. The EU has ruled out a renegotiation of the Brexit deal.

Mr Hands, a former UK trade minister, said he spoke to Mr Varadkar briefly about the commission’s proposals at a social event at the US ambassador’s residence in Dublin on Wednesday night.

Members of the commission, which is funded by the Prosperity UK think tank, also met Minister of State for Trade Pat Breen, Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond, chairman of the Seanad’s Brexit committee, and Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly during their visit.

Mr Hands said the commission members were not visiting to persuade the Government of the merits of their alternative ideas “at this point” but were in Dublin for information meetings “advertising our findings.”

He rejected the view of a Northern Irish business lobby group that the additional bureaucracy arising from alternative arrangements could put small companies out of business.

The commission’s suggested “trusted trader” programme - already dismissed by the EU as a post-Brexit solution for the Border - could “actually reduce costs,” Mr Hands said. He did concede, however, there would be extra costs for businesses but that the UK government could cover them.

“What I do accept is that it won’t be the status quo and that people will have to do some things differently to how they’re doing them today,” he said.