A new UK government proposal to ensure there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit is expected to be published within weeks.
Following a high-level meeting in Sofia on Thursday, Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated that a proposed ‘backstop’ customs arrangement put forward by the European Commission was “unacceptable,” and that the UK would soon be presenting its own white paper.
The EU backstop plan, which was proposed by Michel Barnier in February, would result in Northern Ireland and Great Britain adhering to different regulations – effectively placing a border in the Irish Sea.
At the time, Mrs May rejected the idea, saying “no UK prime minister could ever agree” to such a proposal.
Speaking after a trilateral meeting involving EU presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said there was some “new thinking” evident in talks with the UK government – hinting that the British proposal could see the whole of the UK remaining aligned with the EU customs union for the foreseeable future.
Commenting on a separate meeting between the PM and Mr Varadkar, a Downing Street spokeswoman said the two leaders “agreed on their shared commitment to avoid a hard border”.
She added: “In a trilateral meeting at the Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, the prime minister discussed the Brexit negotiations with President Juncker and President Tusk.
“The leaders discussed the positive progress which had been made in the talks so far, including agreements on citizens’ rights and other matters.”
The spokeswoman said the PM was of the view that “the proposal put forward by the European Commission in relation to the Ireland/Northern Ireland border was unacceptable,” and added: “The PM said the UK would be shortly putting forward its own backstop proposal in relation to customs.
“The prime minister also held a bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. They agreed on their shared commitment to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and on the need to continue talks on the way forward.”
Mr Varadkar told reporters: “I said to the prime minister that any move that helped to align all of the EU and the UK in terms of customs into the future would be beneficial.
“It would help solve some of the problems related to the border but not all of them. It would certainly help us continue to trade between Britain and Ireland much as we do now.”
Mr Varadkar warned that the UK remaining aligned on customs protocols was not the only thing required to avoid a hard border, RTE reported.
Any agreement on customs would be separate from any arrangements dealing with issues such as food safety standards.
Mr Varadkar said the UK’s new thinking was presented “verbally and conceptually” but Dublin would not respond officially until the UK’s formal proposal was presented in writing.
The latest comments from Mr Varadkar contrast sharply with what he said earlier this week, when he said that Dublin and EU had “yet to see anything that remotely approaches” a way out of the deadlock over customs arrangements.
Responding to reports of a breakthrough on a new backstop DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he had concerns about any plan to “maintain the EU customs regime after 2020 in the face of Cabinet opposition”.
The East Antrim MP said: “If this is true then it is only being done to placate those within the Conservative Party who are doing their best to overthrow the result of the referendum.
“It is not necessary to deal with the issue of the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border and will further undermine the government’s negotiation hand with the EU because it is another display of weakness.”
Mr Wilson added: “Practically it is not needed. If there is duty to be collected for goods crossing the NI/RoI border or indeed for goods crossing from GB to the EU the money can be collected as it is collected at present.”
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: “We are in regular contact with the government at all levels and we will continue to use our influence at Westminster for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland.”
The North Belfast MP added: “We have been very clear that Northern Ireland must not be treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be disastrous were we separated from our biggest market.
“There has been a great deal of speculation about potential outcomes, but as yet these remain only speculation. We will judge progress when it comes against the test of what is best for Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole.”