EU publishes plan to keep Northern Ireland in customs union after Brexit

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier presented the draft document this morning
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The EU has published its plan to effectively keep Northern Ireland in the single market and customs union, therefore avoiding a hard border after Brexit.

Under the proposal, the north will be considered part of the EU's customs territory, with goods coming in from the rest of the UK subject to checks.

The draft says: "A common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established.

"The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protected in accordance with this Chapter."

The European Commission draft states that, under the arrangements envisaged by Brussels, customs controls will be "carried out jointly by the Union and the United Kingdom customs authorities competent for the territory of Northern Ireland".

Northern Ireland will remain subject to EU restrictions restricting state aid for companies, in respect of measures affecting trade between the territory and the EU.

The text states that the proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland will cease to apply if and when alternative solutions are agreed to "address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, avoiding a hard border and protecting the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions".

The text provides for safeguards allowing the UK unilaterally to take time-limited "appropriate measures" in the case that its application leads to "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties liable to persist".

Mr Barnier said the plan for a common regulatory area between the EU and Northern Ireland would not call into question the territorial integrity of the UK.

He said it was a backstop to solutions being found either through a trade deal or another specific method, and urged the UK to put forward proposals.

The diplomat also insisted an "operational solution" needs to be in place before exit day on March 29 2019, as the island cannot, for example, have different rules for animal health on either side of the border after Brexit.

"We are prepared to examine the other options as soon as they are proposed by the UK to us," he said.

"But my personal opinion, as you've asked me on this, this backstop that we're proposing will not call into question the constitutional or institutional order of the UK, we will respect that.

"We are just simply saying that on the territory of the island with two countries we need to find the capacity for certain subjects, for certain issues relating to the internal market and the customs union, which we need to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement can function.

"We need to ensure that there is regulatory consistency, alignment."

Mr Barnier promised to "delete" the backstop Northern Ireland plan if a trade deal or British technological solutions solve the border issue, but denied he was bluffing over the need to have it in the agreement.

He said the draft text did not include a commitment to avoiding a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and mainland UK because it would be seen as interfering in the country's domestic affairs.

Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Theresa May said the British government was "absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". 

She was speaking following the leak of a letter from Boris Johnson suggesting he was prepared to contemplate the introduction of a hard border in Ireland. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it appeared that the British foreign secretary was "mixing up the border with the Camden/Islington border".

Ahead of the publication of the EU document, DUP MP Ian Paisley reacted angrily over leaked details from the draft.

Speaking at the NI Affairs Committee, he said: "I'm disgusted by what the EU are saying about my country. I'm appalled."

Mr Paisley said the British government was facing its biggest test of resolve in the Brexit negotiations and described the plan for common regulations between Northern Ireland and the Republic as an attempt to annex part of the UK.

He told Secretary of State Karen Bradley: "I would ask the government to show some teeth to the EU that we will not be rolling over to the demands to annex part of our country."

Dublin's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, said the proposals amounted to a "backstop" option if a better arrangement cannot be found.

"This is very much a default and would only apply should it prove necessary. This is about delivering on our shared objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and the gains of the peace process, no less, no more."

He added: "This represents a logical outworking of the commitments made by the UK, including on protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and the gains of the peace process and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland."

Presenting the draft document this morning, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier urged all sides to "keep calm and be pragmatic" when it came to the Irish border. 

Mr Barnier repeated his assertion that the text contains "no surprise" for Britain as it puts into a legal form agreements reached by British Prime Minister Theresa May with the EU in December.

"It expresses in legal terms the commitments jointly entered into by the union and the United Kingdom in the joint report, it includes the positions of the union which were already known on other withdrawal issues on which we haven't really been able to make any progress since December," he said.

He stressed the document was a draft which would now be circulated among the other 27 EU states before being officially placed on the negotiating table, but said he hoped it would allow all sides to "take stock".

"This is a tool based on legal principles, facts and solutions which are concrete and realistic," he said.

Mr Barnier said the publication of the draft text was a "key moment" in the process.

At a press conference in Brussels he said it was "a very important moment for the negotiations - I'm tempted to say a key moment in this very lengthy and complex process for these extraordinary negotiations which we wish to make a success of".

But signalling frustration at the lack of progress in the negotiations he told reporters: "We must pick up the pace."


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