U.K. Pledges to Give EU Data on Irish Border

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. has pledged to provide information that could help solve a stand-off over the Irish border, the thorniest question in Brexit talks, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

EU negotiators are rewriting a key part of the divorce agreement to try to make it more palatable to the U.K. side. They are trying to find technical solutions to avoid a sea border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain -- part of a wider effort to avoid a frontier appearing on the island of Ireland. In order to do that, they need data on the volume and type of goods that flow across the Irish Sea.

Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier publicly asked the U.K. to share the information in August and it wasn’t clear if Raab was willing to comply. The issue is sensitive, particularly for the Northern Irish party that props up Prime Minister Theresa May’s government in London.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told Barnier last week that he would hand over the data on the trade flows, according to a person familiar with the situation who declined to be named. While a minor step, it could be a sign that progress on the issue that has dogged talks for a year is possible.

According to EU diplomats, the U.K. negotiators have hinted that they would be ready to make concessions on the border issue once the political perils of the Conservative Party conference in early October are out of the way. Both sides are aiming to get a divorce deal done in November.

U.K. Pledges to Give EU Data on Irish Border

Talks over the Irish border have been stuck since February, when the EU laid out a proposal for a so-called backstop measure, which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs union and parts of the single market. But that approach would amount to erecting a customs frontier between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, which May says is unacceptable.

Officials are now seeking to minimize the scope of the backstop, while maintaining the original intent, and see trade flow data as key to that. There may be many areas where there’s little trade, which would mean those sectors would need minimal monitoring on an ongoing basis, officials say.

The data is also likely to show that many goods destined for Northern Ireland from Britain move through Dublin, for example, meaning that checks can take place in the Irish capital rather than adding more politically sensitive checks at Northern Irish ports, the person said.

May needs to keep her allies in the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party onside, as without them she doesn’t have a majority in Parliament. For the DUP, any barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain would be unacceptable.

The DUP may view the provision of data by Raab to the EU as evidence that the U.K. is getting ready to compromise on the backstop. The DUP has said avoiding a border in the Irish Sea is a red-line issue for its support of May.

“I don’t see any way for the DUP to support a Northern Irish-only backstop,” Richard Bullick, a former adviser to party leaders Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster. “I would have thought that there’s no way DUP could accept Northern Irish being treated differently from rest of U.K. in this regard, almost at any price.”

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