May Secures Key EU Brexit Concessions on Customs, Times Says

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May has secured concessions from Brussels that will let her keep all of Britain in a customs union with the European Union to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times reported, without saying where it obtained the information.

The move could win over some opposition Labour lawmakers and increase the chances of getting a Brexit deal through Parliament, the Times said.

May Secures Key EU Brexit Concessions on Customs, Times Says

Under the banner headline “May’s Secret Brexit Deal,” the newspaper said she’s also on course to gain an agreement on a “future economic partnership” that will allow Britain to keep open the prospect of a similar free-trade accord to the one Canada has with the EU. That in turn could sway the euroskeptic wing of her Conservative Party.

A Downing Street spokesman said Sunday the Times report was “speculation” and that negotiations with the EU are ongoing. The government has previously said the withdrawal agreement is 95 percent complete and that there’s also been progress in talks on the future relationship.

The newspaper also reported:

  • May will discuss Brexit plan with Cabinet on Tuesday; ministers will be told failure to support it will make them responsible for a no-deal Brexit
  • U.K. officials want enough progress this week to persuade EU to announce a special summit in November to sign off on the final details

Though there are just five months to go before the U.K. leaves the EU, neither side has publicly reported in any detail what’s going on in the talks since May updated Parliament on Oct. 22. But U.K. officials believe intensive negotiations will deliver the decisive step needed for an agreement within the next few weeks, according to two people familiar with the matter.

May Secures Key EU Brexit Concessions on Customs, Times Says

The key sticking point remains how to avoid customs checks taking place at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, without putting up new barriers between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

According to the Times, the EU has agreed to May’s call for a U.K.-wide customs deal, that would negated the need for checks either between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, or at the frontier with the Republic of Ireland. Crucially, this would be a legally binding commitment under the terms of the separation treaty, the newspaper reported.

The bloc has also accepted that regulatory checks on goods can take place “in the market” by British officials, rather than at ports by EU inspectors, according to the Times.

During a visit to Dublin on Friday, May’s de facto deputy David Lidington said the U.K. and the EU are “certainly very close to resolving” the Irish border issue. Lidington said he wouldn’t predict the timing of a deal but pointed out that a Cabinet meeting could be called at any time.

Even if a deal is done in Brussels in the coming days, May will have to sell it in London -- first to her own Cabinet, and then to Parliament.

But some of Britain’s biggest corporate names have had enough of the government’s handling of the negotiations.

More than 70 business leaders, including founder Martha Lane Fox and former J. Sainsbury Plc chief Justin King -- signed a letter arguing that both the government’s current plans for Brexit, and a no-deal Brexit, would be bad for companies and jobs.

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