U.K. Is Said to Switch Brexit Focus to Irish Border Backstop

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May will focus on negotiating a backstop plan to avoid a hard border between the U.K. and Ireland as the battle inside her Cabinet over a Brexit trade plan drags on.

Discussions among senior ministers over how closely to mirror the European Union’s tariff and customs rules after Brexit will probably last for at least another two weeks, according to an official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With that in mind, the summit of EU leaders at the end of June is likely to focus on finding an insurance plan that would avoid a hard border, if no other arrangements are in place, the official said.

The question is vital because both the U.K. and the EU want to ensure that the final Brexit deal avoids the need for checks on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as this would put pressure on the Irish peace accord. If there’s no agreement on avoiding a policed frontier, Brexit talks will be at risk of collapse.

Negotiations on the Irish border are stuck in part because British ministers can’t agree among themselves on what kind of new customs arrangements they want with the EU in the long term.

The EU has proposed a backstop option that would keep Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs territory after Brexit, when the rest of the U.K. leaves. May has already rejected this, saying it would be unacceptable to any British prime minister.

The EU and Ireland have said May’s team must engage seriously with their backstop proposal as an urgent priority ahead of the June 28 summit of European leaders in Brussels.

Britain says it wants the future trade deal to be so effective that a hard border on the island of Ireland isn’t necessary. Until now, U.K. officials have argued that British and European negotiators must discuss this future trade deal at the same time as agreeing on a suitable backstop as an insurance policy in case the future customs arrangements are not agreed in time.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.