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Theresa May at 10 Downing Street
Image: picture-alliance/empics/S. Rousseau

UK publishes Irish border backstop proposal

June 7, 2018

The UK government has presented a proposal to resolve the Irish border issue post-Brexit. The backstop plan, which would be implemented until 2021, comes after Brexit Secretary David Davis reportedly threatened to quit.


The British government said it was looking forward to negotiating the details of its backstop proposal for the Irish border with EU officials, after it presented its plan on Thursday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May's s fall-back plan would see it remain temporarily aligned with EU customs rules after Brexit until a permanent new trade agreement — that avoids a physical border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland — is found.

Read more: 'Armageddon' Brexit: 'No deal' scenario could hit fuel and food

What are the UK's conditions?

Under the UK's backstop proposal:

  • Both the British mainland and Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the EU customs union until 2021 "at the latest" — nearly three years after the UK's withdrawal from the EU in March 2019 and a year after the conclusion of a 21-month transition phase in December 2020.
  • However, the backstop plan would only come into effect and remain in force as long as there were no wider trade deal in place that resolves the Irish border question. London said it expects to finalize a working withdrawal deal by December 2021.
  • The UK would be allowed to sign its own free trade agreements with other nations following the transition phase, and implement new trade rules, provided they don't infringe on the temporary customs agreement.

Read more: German firms say Brexit makes British market less attractive than Middle East, North Africa

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Barnier casts doubt over proposal

Following the release of May's backstop proposal, the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, posted on Twitter that he welcomed the proposal and that his team would "examine it with 3 questions: is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the SM/CU? Is it an all-weather backstop?"

However, Barnier's remarks also suggested that Brussels was not prepared to budge on its own conditions, namely its opposition to any time limit.

Doubts around the proposed timeframe were also raised by Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Parliament spokesman Guy Verhofstadt. "A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop," Verhofstadt tweeted.

The British government nevertheless remained hopeful that it could find a compromise. "What's important now is that we now have a published, agreed piece of government policy," a spokeswoman for May told reporters, adding that the government was "looking forward" to further talks with the EU on Britain's counterproposal.

Read more: 2018: The year of Brexit decisions

Britain: Out of the EU, out with Europeans?

Why is Brussels opposed to a time limit? EU officials have been adamant that the backstop cannot have a time limit when there is no guarantee when the negotiations may be concluded. Brussels also fears that Britain could be attempting to renegotiate the transition agreement such that it continues gaining access EU's single market but without being subject to its rules.

Rifts in the PM's Cabinet The UK government's backstop plan came after days of wrangling between officials in May's cabinet over the conditions of a time limit. According to reports, Brexit Minister David Davis even threatened to quit unless May agreed to impose a time limit. Brexiteers fear that without it, the UK would remain aligned to the EU indefinitely.

The current proposal was viewed in some quarters as compromise between Davis and May, but it also points to a weakened prime minister struggling to drive negotiations in Brussels.

Read more: Brexit: EU ministers agree on transition period demands

The Irish border Both the UK and EU have both committed to avoiding any physical infrastructure dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic where free movement of goods and people is widely seen as crucial to maintaining peace on the island. However, May has struggled to identify how she intends to fulfill this commitment while also delivering on her promise to quit the EU's single market and customs union after Brexit.

Talks to finally resume? After talks stalled weeks ago, negotiations are set to finally resume in the coming days on the UK's backstop plan. The Irish government has said it wants to see "substantial progress" on the border issue by the next EU's leaders' summit, slated for June 22-23.

dm/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa)

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