Britain is set to unveil new proposals on the future status of the Irish border, in a bid to break deadlock in Brexit negotiations.
Speaking at the end of a two-day EU summit in Austria, at which Brexit was high on the agenda, Theresa May said the UK would “shortly” be coming forward with new proposals on the so-called “backstop” arrangements for implementation at the border if no long-term solution is found.
Her announcement came as European Council president Donald Tusk told the prime minister she will have to rethink her Chequers blueprint for Brexit, saying the plan will not work in its present form.
Following a working lunch of the remaining 27 EU states at the informal summit in Salzburg, Mr Tusk said that while there were “positive elements” in the Chequers plan, they could not accept any proposal which threatened the single market.
“Everybody shared the view that while there are positive elements in the Chequers proposal, the suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work, not least because it is undermining the single market,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the EU27 were agreed that, “in the matter of the single market, there can be no compromises”.
After what she described as a “frank” meeting with Mr Tusk, Mrs May – who was not present at the lunch – insisted that the plan remains “the only serious and credible proposition on the table” for resolving the border issue.
She has flatly rejected a European Commission backstop proposal for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU customs area after Brexit, arguing that this would draw a border down the Irish Sea.
Speaking after her meeting with Mr Tusk, the PM said: “We both agree there can be no withdrawal agreement without a legally operative backstop. But that backstop cannot divide the UK into two customs territories, and we will be bringing forward our own proposals shortly.
“On the economic partnership, there is no solution that will resolve the Northern Ireland border which is not based on the frictionless movement of goods.
“Our White Paper remains the only serious and credible proposition on the table for achieving that objective.”
Mrs May acknowledged there was “a lot of hard work to be done” to secure agreement on the withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on future trading relations.
She added: “If the political will is there on the other side, I’m confident we will reach a deal and to do so is in the EU’s interests as well as the UK’s.”
Mr Tusk said the “moment of truth” in the negotiations would come at the next full European Council meeting in October, when it will be decided whether to hold a special summit in November to finalise the withdrawal agreement.
Mrs May also held a bilateral meeting with Irish premier Leo Varadkar at Salzburg yesterday morning, which was described by an Irish government source as “useful”, with the Irish delegation emphasising that time was short and “we need to get to the stage where we can consider a legal text” on the backstop.
However, Mrs May reportedly indicated that she did not think agreement on the backstop would be reached in time for October.
On Tuesday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier outlined Brussel’s “improved” version of the backstop, stating it would amount to “technical checks” and not a land or sea border.
In response, the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) told the News Letter: “What we cannot accept is seeing NI carved away from the UK customs territory because regardless of where the checks will be, what that would mean would be a challenge to our constitutional and economic integrity.”