Brexit: UK and EU play down talk of immediate breakthrough

Theresa May’s spokesman says ‘there remain big issues to work through’

British prime minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said on Monday there could be no legally binding withdrawal agreement without a precise political declaration about the future relationship between Britain and the EU. File photograph: Matt Dunham/PA Wire

British prime minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said on Monday there could be no legally binding withdrawal agreement without a precise political declaration about the future relationship between Britain and the EU. File photograph: Matt Dunham/PA Wire

 

London and Brussels have played down the prospect of an immediate breakthrough as Brexit negotiators entered a week of intensive negotiations about the Border backstop. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has postponed the publication of a paper about the future relationship between Britain and the EU after Brexit.

Theresa May’s official spokesman sought to dampen expectations of an early agreement on Monday, insisting there must be movement from the EU side for a deal to become possible. He said there could be no legally binding withdrawal agreement without a precise political declaration about the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

“There is a difference between people talking optimistically about a deal and a deal including both the withdrawal agreement and the future framework actually being agreed. There remain big issues to work through and as the PM has said, this will require movement on the EU side. I would just make that point again that there can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework,” the spokesman said.

At the end of this week, Britain is due to bring forward its proposal for the backstop, which is expected to accept that Northern Ireland alone should remain in regulatory alignment with the EU. Under the British proposal, the whole of the UK would remain in a “temporary customs arrangement” with the EU similar to the customs union.

Checked for compliance

Northern Ireland goods produced after Brexit could be checked for compliance with EU rules by local civil servants with supervision from Brussels under proposals being considered to avoid a hard border.

EU negotiators working on “de-dramatising” the so-called backstop solution are looking at how to align rules north and south of the Border that would make the proposal more politically acceptable to unionists.

Northern Irish business figures briefed by EU officials from Mr Barnier’s team on Monday were told that under the EU version of the backstop, goods and food products would have to meet EU rules, requiring Brussels to check compliance on any new products developed after Brexit.

One solution could involve an audit team from the Republic approving Northern Irish goods after the UK quits the EU in March 2019 for sale in the EU. This is likely to draw opposition from unionists so another option might see the Northern Ireland Assembly and civil servants supervising checks under EU instructions.

‘Catastrophic’

DUP leader Arlene Foster, who will be in Brussels on Tuesday for talks with Mr Barnier, warned on Monday night that it would be “catastrophic” to create a new border in the Irish Sea.

“The United Kingdom single market must be protected with no new borders between Northern Ireland and Great Britain being created. From day one this has been the DUP’s only red line. This red line is recognising that Great Britain is Northern Ireland’s biggest market. Over 70 per cent of all goods leaving Belfast port are destined for Great Britain. To create a barrier to that trade would be catastrophic,” she said.