Brexit Deal Hunt Sees May in Belfast and Varadkar in Brussels

(Bloomberg) -- The search for a way to get Britain out of the European Union with a deal will intensify Wednesday, as Theresa May begins the second day of her visit to Northern Ireland and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, travels to Brussels to hold his own Brexit talks.

Both sides want to find a solution that addresses Ireland’s concerns about its land border with the U.K. and that May can sell to the British Parliament. She is due to make a trip to Brussels on Thursday, though it’s unlikely she’ll be proposing anything concrete at this stage.

Speaking in Belfast on Tuesday afternoon, May suggested she was seeking to modify, rather than remove, the contentious Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement that she’s agreed with the EU. By setting a relatively low bar for the next round of negotiations, May would increase her chances of getting changes from Brussels. The risk is that she alienates the politicians whose support she needs to get a deal through Parliament in London.

‘Alternative Arrangements’

“I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future,” May said. “What Parliament has said is that there should be changes made to the backstop.”

In fact, Parliament did not call for changes to the backstop, but for it to be abolished. On Jan. 29, the House of Commons voted to replace it with “alternative arrangements” in the withdrawal agreement as a way to avert checkpoints on the Irish border.

May sought to reassure her audience that she is determined to avoid changes to the Irish border, which is currently invisible. Conservatives are keen that Brexit should mean leaving the EU’s customs union and single market, so that the U.K. can sign new trade deals. But a different customs regime between North and South would require some mechanism for checking goods moving between the U.K. and Ireland.

A group of Conservative members of Parliament is now trying to come up with a proposal for a technology-based solution to the problem, an idea the government explored without success last year. May sounded cool about this idea as well.

Brexit Deal Hunt Sees May in Belfast and Varadkar in Brussels

Wednesday morning she’s due to meet Northern Ireland’s different political parties. By far the most important from her point of view are the Democratic Unionist Party, who prop up her minority government. If she can persuade them to sign off on her deal, many of the rebels in her Conservative Party might fall into line as well.

‘Legally Binding’

There were signs of hope for May when, in a statement after the prime minister’s speech, DUP lawmaker Emma Little Pengelly said the party wanted “legally binding changes,” which means it could be satisfied with something short of a complete removal.

Varadkar’s visit to Brussels shows the determination of the rest of the EU to find a solution as well. A no-deal Brexit would create multiple problems for Ireland, which would potentially be faced with a choice between putting a border up -- an idea Varadkar rejects -- and being forced out of the EU’s customs union. Ireland also moves many of its goods to the EU via the U.K., so delays at British ports would have a knock-on effect.

The Irish premier will meet the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, as well as the chair of the European Parliament steering group on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Varadkar said Tuesday that he noted a “growing desire” among EU leaders to avoid a no-deal outcome. “Nobody wants to be in the situation whereby we as Europe fail to find solutions,” he told lawmakers in Dublin.

On Thursday, May will meet Juncker, Tusk, Verhofstadt and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.

May has set herself a deadline of Feb. 13 to negotiate a reformed deal with the EU that has a chance of passing in a vote in the Commons. If she fails, members of Parliament will propose their own Plan B options on Feb. 14, including one that’s expected to prepare the ground to delay Brexit.

The U.K. is due to exit the EU on March 29, with or without a deal.

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