No Irish Border Brexit Alternative From U.K. Yet, Officials Say

Updated on
  • U.K. doesn’t agree with EU’s ‘backstop’ option in draft treaty
  • EU’s Hogan says Britain wants to keep much of EU membership

Pedestrians walk along Donegall Place in view of Belfast City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018. 

Photographer: Jacobia Dahm/Bloomberg

The U.K. hasn’t yet put forward an alternative “backstop” solution for the Irish border, with Brexit negotiations making slow progress since last month’s summit breakthrough, people familiar with the talks said.

Finding a way to avoid customs checks at the Irish border is one of the biggest issues the U.K. and European Union disagree over. The British government disputes the wording in the draft Brexit treaty that would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and parts of the single market unless the U.K. comes up with a better solution. Prime Minister Theresa May said that’s unacceptable.

Since last month’s summit when the EU agreed in principle to a 21-month transition period after Brexit, contact between officials in London and Brussels has been limited, with no changes made to the wording of the Irish part of the draft text. Unless the text is agreed in its entirety, the EU won’t allow the transition phase and the U.K. will crash out of the bloc to trade solely on World Trade Organization terms.

While the British government has acknowledged the need for a backstop option should no other solution emerge in the course of talks over the two sides’ future trading relationship, it doesn’t accept the EU’s version. This would create a border between Northern Ireland and the U.K. mainland and is opposed by the Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government.

Speaking at a conference in Brussels on Monday, Phil Hogan, Ireland’s representative at the European Commission, said the EU was united in its determination to avoid a hard Irish border. He added that it seemed that the U.K. didn’t want to distance itself too much from the EU after 45 years of membership.

“There is a lot of the union that the U.K. wants to retain,” he said. “You might want to say it doesn’t want to change its EU outfit, just its shoes.”

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