The EU is using Northern Ireland as a “blackmailing tool” in a bid to keep the UK in the customs union post-Brexit, a senior DUP figure has claimed.
It comes after a draft withdrawal agreement published by Brussels on Wednesday proposed a “common regulatory area” after Brexit on the island of Ireland – in effect keeping NI in a customs union – if no other solution is found.
The notion of separate customs arrangements for the Province has provoked a backlash from unionists and some Tory MPs, who said it would create a new border in the Irish Sea.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the EU had effectively “put a gun to the UK’s head” and was using NI as a way to wring concessions out of Theresa May.
East Antrim MP Mr Wilson told the News Letter: “The EU is attempting to back the PM into a corner with these blackmailing tactics.
“They think that they can manoeuvre her into having no other choice but to agree to their terms.”
Mr Wilson said the prime minister “must dig her heels in” on this issue, adding: “If she gives into this blackmail over the customs union, then the EU will pile the pressure on her to make even more concessions.”
Mrs May said the proposals would “undermine” the integrity and constitution of the UK.
“No UK prime minister could ever agree to it,” she told the House of Commons.
Mrs May is reliant on the support of the DUP, as the party’s 10 MPs are propping up her minority government at Westminster.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier insisted the proposal was a “backstop” option that would only be implemented if no deal can be agreed between London and Brussels.
When asked if – in the event no other solution is found– the DUP would consider withdrawing its support for the Tory administration, effectively toppling the government, Mr Wilson told the News Letter: “That is not something we have to consider, as I am certain that a sufficient number of Tory MPs would strongly oppose any attempts to have NI treated differently than the rest of the UK.”
After the draft agreement was revealed on Wednesday, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said using the peace process in Northern Ireland as an excuse to “thwart” the UK’s departure from the EU is “outrageous and disgraceful”.
The North Belfast MP condemned those seeking to use the Good Friday Agreement to “shape” Brexit, and called for politicians to go forward in a “pragmatic and sensible way”.
The draft EU text puts into legal terms the Joint Report agreed by Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in December, and is due to be agreed by the remaining 27 EU states in the coming weeks.