The Irish government has said it is open to the possibility of a fresh proposal for a deal on the border issue, but will only consider a new plan if it is better than the one on the table.
The Irish finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, was speaking hours after Theresa May demanded the EU abandon its stance and “evolve its position” to include a guarantee there would be no border in the Irish Sea in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“The only thing that could replace this current form of a backstop is, number one, something which is better, number two, something which is agreed, and number three, something that would be legally operable,” Donohoe told the Irish broadcaster RTÉ.
“The Irish government is very clear that the Irish backstop must be retained for any future agreement between the EU and the UK to be put in place.”
In a speech in Belfast, the UK prime minister said it was time for the EU to drop what she believes is its inflexible view on an Irish border solution to break the Brexit talks impasse.
She branded the EU’s proposal “unworkable” and repeated her assertion that a border down the Irish Sea was unacceptable to any British prime minister.
May said she was still committed to a backstop, or insurance policy, in the event of no deal, but it had to deliver the December joint report that sowed the seeds of the current disagreement by guaranting regulatory alignment north and south of the border.
The prime minister told an audience of business leaders in Belfast’s Waterfront building the UK government had “put an approach on the table which does precisely that” in the Brexit white paper – a goods-only proposal that would involve near-frictionless trade.
“It is now for the EU to respond. Not simply to fall back on to previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind,” she said.
Rajesh Rana, the president of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, said: “That is a great deal if we can get it, but I don’t think the EU will allow it.
“If they give the UK a free-trade agreement involving a frictionless border without freedom of movement, other countries will just say they want that too.”
May used her speech to slap down hard Brexiters who said the Irish border was Dublin’s problem, not Britain’s. “We can’t solve it on our own, but nor can we wash our hands of any responsibility for it,” she said.
The EU’s 27 other member states had a chance to examine and respond to the white paper when its general council of ministers met in Brussels on Friday morning. They will also receive an update on the talks from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
May’s decision to push back so strongly against the EU and Ireland’s demands for a backstop will fuel fears in Dublin she is backsliding on the joint agreement in December to secure insurance in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Her opposition to a border in the Irish Sea was cemented on Monday when a last-minute amendment to the customs bill, tabled by the Labour MP Kate Hoey, was nodded through, making it illegal to have a barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
May is on a two-day visit to Ireland – her first to the Irish border. On Thursday, she spent two hours meeting business leaders at a pottery factory in the village of Belleek on the County Fermanagh and Co Donegal frontier, but did not take questions from reporters.
Before leaving the factory, May met Delma Käthner, a local woman, who told her she was “bionic”.
“She’s coped with so much,” Käthner said. “She has a terrible job. Just look at the way her shoulders are hunched. She has the whole weight of Brexit on her.”
Inside the EU, both Ireland and Northern Ireland (as part of the UK) are part of the single market and customs union so share the same regulations and standards.
The only way to avoid a hardening of the border after Brexit is to ensure regulations and standards on both sides remain more or less the same in areas like food, medicines and so on.
This might imply a permanent acceptance of EU rules – something that would be anathema to hardline UK Brexiters and the DUP, who reject anything that would "decouple" the North from the UK.
David Davis told parliament that regulatory alignment would not mean adopting exactly the same rules as the EU but "mutually recognised" rules and inspections.
However, an official in Brussels countered that regulatory alignment would mean that the UK would have to implement rules from Brussels without having any influence over them.
What is the government’s plan for ‘regulatory alignment’?
Davis says the UK could continue to follow some rules of the EU’s single market. This would help avoid a hard border, but would also limit the UK’s ability to diverge from EU regulations.
What does the EU think?
Davis thinks the UK and EU can agree to meet the same aims, while achieving them in different ways. The EU believes this could see its standards on workers’ rights and the environment undercut.
Can it even work?
Parliament cannot bind its successors. This principle would mean a deal would never be completely secure for more than five years – putting its feasibility in doubt.
May’s remarks come hours after the Confederation of British Industry said economic data showed Northern Ireland was edging towards recessionary territory, with the uncertainty over Brexit partly to blame.
Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed concern that the turmoil in the House of Commons suggested a withdrawal agreement would never be supported in Westminster, whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
On Wednesday night, Varadkar said Ireland was looking to hire about 1,000 officials for customs, veterinary and export checks to cope with there being no agreement.