U.K. Weighs Contentious Brexit Plan for Irish Border

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A radical option for breaking the deadlock in Brexit negotiations is still in play, even though it’s likely to enrage the Northern Irish party propping up Theresa May’s fragile Conservative government.

U.K. Weighs Contentious Brexit Plan for Irish Border

British officials are considering allowing the EU to impose its market regulations on Northern Ireland, while the rest of the U.K. breaks away after Brexit, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be named outlining proposals that aren’t public. The plan would come into force as a “backstop” -- if other options fail -- in order to guarantee that there won’t be a hard border on the U.K.’s land frontier with Ireland, an EU member state.

The idea, first reported by Bloomberg in June, was not ruled out by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab when he was pressed on it during evidence to a parliamentary committee on Tuesday and the person confirmed that it remains on the table, among other potential policies.

U.K. Weighs Contentious Brexit Plan for Irish Border

Agreeing to split the regulatory regime between Northern Ireland and the British mainland would be politically explosive for May. Her Tory party has no overall majority in Parliament and depends on the support of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to pass legislation.

No ‘Customs Border’

The DUP has warned it will never accept a border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, and could potentially walk out of the “supply and confidence” deal it has with May’s Conservatives, leading to the collapse of the government and fresh elections.

May herself has publicly backed the DUP. She’s repeatedly rejected the EU’s preferred option for a backstop plan for the Irish border -- which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs territory, while applying many regulations of the single market.

Raab has been in office for just over two weeks, and, like May, has said there will be no “customs border” in the Irish Sea, which separates the island of Ireland from mainland Britain. But when asked Tuesday by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson whether there could be a “regulatory border down the Irish Sea,” Raab was less clear. He said he understood Wilson’s concerns, adding: “We will do everything we can to protect the integrity of the U.K.”

An Essential First

On a visit to Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said there would be “strong resistance” to allowing the EU market rules to apply to Northern Ireland but not the rest of the U.K., according to The Times.

U.K. Weighs Contentious Brexit Plan for Irish Border

Negotiators are meeting in Brussels this week to address the question of the Irish border. Raab is due to meet his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, at the European Commission on Thursday. Talks have stalled in part because the two sides can’t agree on the backstop plan for the Irish border. Without that in place, negotiators can’t move on to talks on the future trade terms.

So far, discussions have focused on the U.K.’s backstop proposal for a temporary customs arrangement, which would see the EU’s tariff regime applied across the whole U.K. as an emergency measure if no other plans can be agreed to.

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