Theresa May’s plan for Irish border ‘annihilated’ by EU

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
The Irish border near Newry, Co Down (Press Association)

Theresa May’s plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit has been roundly rejected by EU negotiators – fuelling calls for the UK to remain part of a customs union.

The Prime Minister’s top Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, met with EU officials in Brussels on Wednesday to try and make progress with the most difficult issue in negotiations.

But an EU official has told the Telegraph that the British proposals – set out by Mrs May in her Mansion House speech – were subject to a “systematic and forensic annihilation.”

“It was a detailed and forensic rebuttal,” said the source briefed on the meeting.

“It was made clear that none of the UK’s customs options will work. None of them.”

A spokesman for Theresa May said the government didn’t recognise the account of the meeting given to the Telegraph.

He said: “We are confident that in the coming months, if all sides work together productively, we can achieve a solution to the Ireland/Northern Ireland border that works for everyone involved.”

But Lib Dem Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said the report showed “the only solution was always going to be a hard border or the customs union.”

The development has put further pressure on the Prime Minister’s plan to leave the customs union as it meets resistance in both houses of Parliament.

The government was defeated over the issue in the Lords on Wednesday when peers voted to instruct ministers to consider remaining part of the customs union.

Now a cross-party group of MPs – including Conservative Nicky Morgan – have called a vote on the issue in the Commons next week.

Mrs May has said remaining part of a customs union would “betray the vote of the British people” and “not be compatible with a meaningful independent trade policy.”

Olly Robbins (left) meets with Brexit Secretary David Davis (Getty)

But the EU’s outright rejection of the two tailored solutions she set out in her Mansion House speech could yet force her into a climb down.

Mrs May’s suggestion of a “customs partnership”, which would see the UK collect duties for goods bound for Europe on behalf of the EU, was ruled out by Brussels on three grounds, the Telegraph reported.

The EU would not countenance allowing a country outside of its supervision and IT systems to levy duties, said it would place the burden of collecting tariffs on business and said that implementing the system on the EU side of the Channel would be too expensive.

Mrs May’s second proposal for a “highly streamlined customs arrangement” based on a trusted trader scheme and technological solutions, which included “specific provisions for Northern Ireland”, was also rejected. 

Lord Macpherson, the former top official at the Treasury, said the EU’s position was “predictable” because of the backstop solution in the Withdrawal Agreement.

The deal done between the UK and EU in December states that Northern Ireland will remain part of the customs union if there is no other solution to avoiding a hard border.

In response to the latest set back, Mrs May is to chair weekly meetings of the government’s Brexit negotiators to try and find new solution ahead of the next EU leaders’ summit in ten weeks time.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said today that a quarter of Brexit issues, including the Irish border, are yet to be resolved.

“There are always difficulties, and risks of a failure,” Mr Barnier told French TV.

The importance of the Irish border issue for the whole Brexit deal was reiterated by EU Council President Donald Tusk this week.

“The UK’s decision on Brexit has caused the problem, and the UK will have to help solve it,” he told the European Parliament as Brexit negotiators met on Wednesday.

“Without a solution, there will be no withdrawal agreement and no transition.”