U.K. Negotiators Haven't Pitched Irish Backstop, Officials Say

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Brexit negotiators haven’t formally discussed with their European counterparts Theresa May’s controversial new proposal for breaking the deadlock over the Irish border, according to three people familiar with this week’s talks in Brussels.

The two teams of officials did discuss the thorny issue of the Irish border -- which both sides have committed to keeping open after Brexit -- the people said. But they focused on technical matters related to cross-border trade and didn’t discuss the proposal that emerged last week, which would keep the whole U.K. tied to EU customs rules for years as a last resort.

With pressure mounting on the U.K. to come up with an acceptable solution by the end of June, May raised it with leaders at an informal gathering last week -- and got a cool response. The latest three-day negotiating round ends on Thursday and little progress has been made. A full separation agreement is meant to be signed in October, but the Irish border is a potential deal-breaker.

U.K. Brexit Minister Robin Walker told lawmakers in London on Wednesday that the government’s backstop proposal would be presented in the coming weeks. It is designed to replace wording put forward by the EU side, which would effectively cut Northern Ireland off from the rest of the U.K. May has said no prime minister could accept that.

Both sides have agreed in principle to a backstop that would take effect in 2021 if a wider trade deal that’s good enough to avoid the need for checks at the Irish border isn’t ready. The backstop is a part of the overall Brexit agreement which needs to be approved before the U.K. leaves the EU next March.

May’s alternative plan would potentially keep the entire U.K. in parts of the customs union until other arrangements are ready, which could take years. Brexit supporters in her government are also critical of the plan.

While they haven’t seen the precise details of the plan, EU officials have already reacted with skepticism. They say any backstop solution should deal specifically with Northern Ireland -- rather than the whole U.K. -- and any extension of the existing customs framework would probably be considered only as part of a wholesale extension that keeps the U.K. tied to all EU rules and structures.

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