EU demands put Brexit plan at risk
BELGIUM: The European Union is threatening British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan by warning that Northern Ireland must sign up to Brussels rules and regulations if Britain wishes to leave the European customs union and single market.
France and Germany are understood to have blocked British plans to continue ‘‘fudging’’ the issue and are now insisting on a legal agreement, which EU sources say is likely to spark an ‘‘explosive row’’ in the coming days.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up the Conservative minority government in Westminster, will strongly oppose the EU’s proposal, as will Conservative Brexiteers.
British Brexit negotiators have privately warned that the hardline stance from Brussels has left them unable to negotiate.
It is understood that the approach will be set out in the European Commission’s draft withdrawal agreement, which is due to be published today. It would effectively move the border between Britain and the EU into the Irish Sea if Britain wants to diverge from EU rules, according to officials who have seen it.
The legal text of the December Brexit deal is expected to omit compromise language insisted upon by May that ‘‘no new regulatory barriers’’ would come into play between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit.
After weeks of trying to temper EU demands over the Irish border question, British negotiators are now increasingly resigned to the EU rejecting compromise, driven on by a hardline Brexit agenda in Paris and Berlin.
The EU’s approach emerged as British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn committed his party to keeping Britain in a customs union after Brexit if he becomes prime minister.
EU sources have said that membership of a customs union with the EU – which May is continuing to rule out – could form the basis of a compromise solution as part of the future trade deal between the United Kingdom and the EU.
The text is expected to ignore UK ideas for a compromise on the border, focusing instead on Britain’s ‘‘fallback’’ option of full regu- latory alignment between Britain and the EU to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
The looming battle has been caused by the EU’s determination to spell out in ‘‘operational detail’’ how the UK must make good on its pledge to avoid a return to a hard border after Brexit.
Last December the UK set out its preferred solutions to the border question. However, to the alarm of British negotiators, it now seems clear that the draft text will focus almost entirely on the fallback option.
‘‘In practice, the EU wants the European Court of Justice to have jurisdiction over Northern Ireland, which will then become a rule-taker for large swathes of EU law,’’ said a source briefed on the text. One UK source described the EU approach as ‘‘outrageous’’.
An EU source said the EU had decided it could no longer allow the UK to duck the Irish issue and risk blowing up talks in October.
The EU has refused to show UK officials a formal draft of the text which was being finalised in Brussels yesterday, but there is now scant hope it will soften.
Trade Secretary Liam Fox said that staying in a customs union with the EU after Brexit ‘‘would be a complete sellout of Britain’s national interests’’.
While Britain remains in the customs deal, it cannot break away from Europe’s tariff regime to strike its own free trade deals with other countries around the world.
– Telegraph Group, Bloomberg
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has committed his party to keeping Britain in a customs union after Brexit if he becomes prime minister.