Post-Brexit joint EU-UK working group for North being considered
Brussels seeking to keep North aligned with customs union and parts of single market
DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds: with Conservatives, they argue the backstop would split the North economically and constitutionally from the rest of the UK. Photograph: Michael McHugh/PA
The proposal is among a series of ideas being considered in negotiations between the EU and UK as both sides attempt to break the deadlock over the Irish Border issue to reach a deal on the withdrawal agreement covering the UK’s exit from the EU.
EU negotiators are trying to hammer out a legal text with the UK on a backstop – the last-resort option to maintain an invisible border if no better solution is found or it is not solved in a EU-UK trade deal.
European Commission negotiators are attempting to find ways of keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the changing rules of the customs union and parts of the single market under their proposed backstop. This would mean that the regulations in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland would be matched to avoid the need for checks along the Border.
One solution would be to create a joint working party comprising EU officials and Northern Irish or British government officials that would meet every month to discuss and consider changes in regulations in Northern Ireland/UK and in the EU to maintain regulatory alignment north and south.
It would ensure that, under the backstop, Northern Ireland’s interests would be protected under any changes to trade rules arising from any future free trade agreements signed by either the EU or UK.
Under this proposal, Northern Ireland would not have a role in the decision-making process around rule changes at EU level but would be consulted in much the same way that Norway operates as a rule-taker from the EU as a European Economic Area (EEA) member to sell goods into the EU’s internal market.
The consultations are being proposed as part of efforts to “de-dramatise” the EU’s backstop to make it more politically palatable to Theresa May’s Conservative government in London and the Democratic Unionist Party, which is keeping her party in power at Westminster.
EEA membership offers countries full access to the EU single market, and the backstop arrangement being considered for Northern Ireland after Brexit under the backstop proposed by Brussels would allow it, like Norway, trade goods with EU states without customs fees being imposed.
More crucially, it would remove the need for a border with the EU along the 499km frontier with the Republic of Ireland, the objective of the negotiations around this fallback option should a future EU-UK trading relationship remove the need for Border checks.
Negotiations around the backstop – the final sticking point on finding an agreement on a Brexit treaty – are expected to continue over the weekend in an effort to find a solution that could be put to EU leaders at a crunch summit in Brussels next Wednesday.
Conservatives and unionists
The EU’s proposed backstop – keeping Northern Ireland effectively in the EU customs union and maintaining access to parts of the single market – has been rejected by the Conservatives and unionists who argue that it would split Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally from the rest of the UK.
London’s preference for the backstop is for temporary membership of the customs union for the UK as a whole. Brussels and Dublin have rejected this saying that a backstop guaranteeing an invisible Irish Border must be in place unless and until a comprehensive agreement on a future relationship is agreed and that agreement covers the same safeguards needed to preserve a frictionless border.
The UK’s proposal also complicates matters in Brussels because if the EU were to agree to the UK possibly staying in the customs union indefinitely under a backstop, it might prejudge negotiations on the future EU-UK trading relationship where the purpose of article 50 Brexit negotiations should be limited solely to the UK’s withdrawal and not deal with its future relations with the EU.