EU to Discuss ‘Camouflaging’ Irish Backstop to Win U.K. Approval

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European Union leaders will discuss how to “camouflage’’ its proposal for avoiding a hard border between the U.K. and Ireland after Brexit, to try to give Prime Minister Theresa May cover to compromise over the thorniest issue left in divorce talks with the bloc.

The EU’s original proposal angered members of May’s Conservative Party and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party she relies on in Parliament. They say it would effectively allow the EU to annex Northern Ireland by keeping the region inside the bloc’s customs union and single market.

So the EU is looking at both sections of the Brexit deal to make its so-called backstop plan more palatable, according to EU diplomats. The remaining 27 leaders of the EU will discuss the issue over lunch -- without May -- in the Austrian city of Salzburg on Thursday, they said.

In the terms of divorce, the EU wants to show that it can minimize the number of physical checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. Then in the political declaration on post-Brexit ties -- which hinges on agreement of a divorce deal -- they’ll look at ways to set out how parts of a future free-trade agreement would further reduce the need for checks.

Camouflaged

The backstop will be “camouflaged as much as possible,” said one diplomat. And the political declaration will emphasize the positive elements of May’s wider proposal for post-Brexit ties, including internal and external security cooperation and areas where the EU accepts the U.K. can remain part of its projects, including its unified patent system.

But the heart of the EU’s plan isn’t changing. It still envisages Northern Ireland staying in the EU’s customs union and single market, while refusing to allow the mainland U.K. to do the same.

An official in May’s office said Wednesday the U.K. can’t accept any offer from the EU that treats Northern Ireland as a separate customs territory.

The EU argues its approach is needed to control goods entering its single market via the Irish Republic, while at the same time avoiding infrastructure at the Ireland-Northern Ireland border that was a flashpoint for decades of violence.

Easier

The revised plan is the backstop “made easier” for the U.K. to accept, a second EU diplomat said. A third said the “backstop” title might also be ditched.

European diplomats have previously said the EU is gambling on May making concessions on the Irish border after what could be a contentious Conservative Party annual conference ending Oct. 3, paving the way for a Brexit deal in November.

Under the EU plan officials are discussing:

  • Customs controls wouldn’t take place at a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain but rather at the start of a good’s journey -- probably in the form of a customs declaration
  • Those goods would still need to be scanned or tagged when leaving mainland Britain but, unless an issue was flagged, wouldn’t need to be stopped by customs officials
  • The EU could trust U.K. customs officials to make checks on British territory going into Northern Ireland, but the data would be checked against EU databases
  • Checks on animals and food products going into Northern Ireland would need to be carried out at Northern Irish ports. The EU estimates that at present 10 percent of this sort of consignment is currently checked; that would rise to 100 percent if there was no trade agreement between the U.K. and EU
  • The political declaration on future ties could set out how checks on food products and industrial goods could be reduced, such as through mutual recognition of each other’s standards in specific industries, and by the U.K. committing to certain food standards as part of a future trade deal

EU diplomats say they acknowledge the plan needs the U.K. to make major commitments about its future trade policy. It would imply the U.K. having a free-trade deal with the EU much like Canada’s -- something favored by the pro-Brexit lawmakers in May’s party -- rather than the closer economic ties set out in May’s blueprint.

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