British and EU Brexit negotiators in weekend talks to firm up backstop text

Proposals for ‘time-limited’ backstop and temporary customs deal latest sticking point

 Hildegarde Naughton, TD and  Tánaiste Simon Coveney at the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready workshop, Friday, at NUI Galway. Photograph: Julien Behal

Hildegarde Naughton, TD and Tánaiste Simon Coveney at the Getting Ireland Brexit Ready workshop, Friday, at NUI Galway. Photograph: Julien Behal

 

British and European Union negotiators are meeting throughout the weekend in an attempt to agree the text of a Northern Ireland Brexit backstop ahead of next Wednesday’s summit in Brussels.

Downing Street said on Friday that Theresa May would not agree to any deal that kept Britain indefinitely within a customs union with the EU. “The prime minister would never agree to a deal which would trap the UK in a backstop permanently,” Mrs May’s official spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman said Britain wanted a temporary customs arrangement for the whole of the UK written into the legal text of the withdrawal agreement as part of the backstop. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said consistently that the backstop must be specific to Northern Ireland and that customs arrangements for the whole of the UK should be part of a political declaration about the future relationship between Britain and the EU.

Mr Barnier’s deputy, Sabine Weyand, on Friday night updated EU ambassadors about the negotiations, which are expected to continue into Monday. Mrs May met members of her inner cabinet on Thursday evening but she did not seek their support for any new negotiating position.

Conservative Brexiteers, including some cabinet ministers, are alarmed by reports that Mrs May is preparing to accept that the backstop, including an all-UK customs arrangement, will have no explicit time limit.

Finite

Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said on Friday that any backstop must be time-limited. “It would have to be finite, it would have to be short and it would have to be, I think, time-limited in order for it to be supported here,” he said.

“What we cannot do is see the United Kingdom locked in via the backdoor to a customs union arrangement which would leave us in an indefinite limbo – that would not be leaving the EU.” 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the backstop, which is designed to guarantee that there will be no hard border in any circumstances, cannot by definition be time-limited.

“If the issues aren’t resolved in three years you can’t do away with the insurance mechanism. We can’t accept a time limit, but we can accept it will only be there unless and until something better is agreed in the future, which is what everyone wants,” he told Sky News.

Mr Coveney also criticised the weight being given in public discourse to the DUP’s threats to withdraw support for the Conservative government if it is unhappy with the backstop. “The DUP represents a minority of people in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“The majority of people in Northern Ireland are looking for something quite different from what the DUP is looking for, and yet the DUP is given this platform as if it speaks for Northern Ireland.”

Northern Ireland could face power cuts in the event of a no-deal Brexit, according to the latest batch of technical notices from the British government. There is a single electricity market on the island of Ireland and the British government would try to work with Dublin to ensure that current arrangements could continue after a no-deal Brexit.

If such an agreement was not possible, Britain would seek to ensure an adequate electricity supply to Northern Ireland, including “demand-side measures” that would limit electricity use.