UK 'ready' to drop Brexit demand on Irish border

Protesters participate in an anti-Brexit demonstration at City Hall in central Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Oct 20, 2018.
Protesters participate in an anti-Brexit demonstration at City Hall in central Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Oct 20, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May is said to be ready to ditch one of her key Brexit demands in order to resolve the vexed issue of the Irish border and clear the path to a deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

The fix opens the possibility that Britain would end up bound indefinitely to the European Union's Customs rules. While that is something the EU and many businesses want, it risks detonating a crisis in Mrs May's government that could even bring her down.  

Until now, she has insisted that a legal guarantee to ensure no new border emerges on the island of Ireland should be strictly limited in time. Mrs May and pro-Brexit politicians in her Conservative party want an end date for the policy to avoid delaying Britain's departure and to ensure the country is free from EU Customs rules to strike its own trade deals around the world.

But the EU rejected her stance and talks have been stuck for months. Now Mrs May and her team of Brexit advisers accept the EU's point that it must be open-ended, for an "enduring" solution, one of the people said.

The proposal is for the whole Britain to stay tied to EU Customs rules as a so-called backstop - or guarantee clause. There would also be some new checks on goods between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

The pound rose on the news.

The problem for the pro-Brexit camp in Mrs May's Cabinet is that what is agreed as a fix for the Irish border could morph into a long-term status quo for the whole Britain.

 
 
 

Businesses have long called for Britain to remain in the Customs union to ease trade with the bloc, an option EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has repeatedly offered as a way out of the stalemate. In the British Parliament, the main opposition Labour party is also pushing for a Customs union.

The thorny question of how to avoid a hard border between Britain and the Irish Republic has held up progress in Brexit talks since March. Time is running out for the EU and British negotiating teams to settle the terms of the divorce and sketch out the future trading arrangements before Britain leaves the bloc on March 29.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 21, 2018, with the headline 'UK 'ready' to drop Brexit demand on Irish border'. Print Edition | Subscribe