U.K. Said to Mull Brexit Plan That Risks Angering Key May Ally

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May’s officials are considering keeping Northern Ireland aligned with European Union rules after Brexit as a last resort to avoid a hard border on the island, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The idea -- which hasn’t been agreed by ministers -- could help break a deadlock in Brexit talks. But it also risks causing more domestic trouble for May, who needs to keep her divided Cabinet together and the Northern Irish party that props up her government onside.

The U.K. has been told to come up with a so-called “backstop” solution for the Irish border as part of its divorce deal with the EU so that no policed frontier emerges on the island after Brexit. It made a partial proposal on Thursday -- after much domestic wrangling -- and the EU said on Friday that while it’s prepared to keep talking about it, some key elements of the plan won’t work.

Part of the problem is the U.K. hasn’t addressed how to keep regulations aligned on either side of the frontier. The EU says ensuring the same rules apply across the island of Ireland in areas such as goods, agriculture, energy, electricity, and environment policy will be crucial to avoid border checks.

One of the options now being considered is to keep Northern Ireland -- not mainland Britain -- aligned with those rules, according to the person.

Why Ireland’s Border Is Brexit’s Intractable Puzzle: QuickTake

The option emerged after the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier rejected key elements of May’s backstop plan for the Irish border. One of his objections was that the backstop can’t apply to the whole U.K. but must be specific to Northern Ireland.

But that’s a problem for May’s Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party, who want the province to be treated the same as mainland Britain.

A spokesman for the U.K. government said: “Our solution to the border issue is the deep and special partnership with the EU that we are confident of negotiating."

“The PM has been clear that we will preserve the integrity of the U.K.’s internal market and there will not be a customs border down the Irish Sea – any backstop option will satisfy this,” he said.

Short-Lived

At a press conference in Brussels, Barnier also warned that May’s proposal for a strict time limit to apply to any backstop plan would not be acceptable. That issue caused a major rift in the U.K. government this week and a compromise drafted in haste on Thursday morning amid speculation one of May’s ministers was about to quit has now been shot down by Brussels just 24 hours after it was proposed.

Brexit talks have been stalled in Brussels over the question of how to avoid a hard border at the Irish frontier. Both the U.K. and the EU are determined to ensure there’s no return to customs checks at the border, amid fears that this could imperil the peace on the island.

But at the same time May has promised a clean break with the EU, taking the U.K. out of the single market and customs union. She’s now struggling with how to square this pledge with her promise to keep trade at the Irish border flowing freely -- and the conflict is a potential deal-breaker.

In his press conference, Barnier welcomed the fact that the U.K. government had put its plan for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland in writing, and said talks would continue.

Tensions are rising ahead of a crunch EU summit on June 28, which is the last meeting of the bloc’s leaders before October, when both sides say they want the divorce deal to be sealed. In just 10 months, Britain is due to leave the bloc, with or without a deal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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