EU countries including Germany and France have discussed a possible time limit to the Irish backstop to break Brexit deadlock, report says

  • Boris Johnson believes the EU will offer the UK a time-limited Irish backstop 
  • Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union and the EU single market
  • The British government believe the EU will offer a sunset clause on the backstop
  • The DUP’s Arlene Foster said her party would not be opposed to such a deal 

By David Churchill For The Daily Mail

Published: 23:44 BST, 1 October 2019 | Updated: 07:57 BST, 2 October 2019

European states have considered offering a time limit to the Irish backstop in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock, it was claimed last night.

The idea has been discussed in Paris and Berlin as a possible compromise in recent weeks amid tougher rhetoric from Boris Johnson on a No Deal Brexit.

However, sources in Brussels insisted yesterday that the option was not yet formally on the table and had not been discussed among all the 27 remaining member states.

Boris Johnson will unveil his plan for the British border with the EU on the island of Ireland later today

Brussels has criticised Boris Johnson, pictured yesterday in Manchester, over his ‘kamikaze Brexit’ strategy which he insists will see Britain leave the EU at the end of the month with or without a deal

DUP leader Arlene Foster, pictured in Manchester on Monday, has indicated her party might not oppose a time-limited Irish backstop in order to facilitate Brexit 

It is understood the proposal, reported by Bloomberg, would involve the UK having to accept a backstop which keeps Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market and not the rest of the UK – something Mr Johnson has previously ruled out.

However, it would have a so-called sunset clause which would give it a time limit so it could not endure for ever. Officials believe such a clause could easily be written into the current deal at the 11th hour.

It comes after DUP leader Arlene Foster suggested that she might consider a time limit on the backstop to break the impasse.

Brussels sources last night confirmed that the idea had been floated, but insisted talk of it was just ‘brainstorming’ in EU capitals. A source said: ‘It’s not been discussed at “27 level” and it’s not part of the negotiations.’

The timetable for a solution to the Irish border conundrum is becoming increasingly tight with a crunch EU summit on October 17 and 18, where the Prime Minister wants to strike a deal. He is expected to table his final offer for breaking the deadlock in a ‘legal text’ either today or tomorrow. Designed to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland, the backstop was agreed by Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.

It has been criticised and rejected by Eurosceptic MPs who say it could lock the UK in the EU’s customs regime indefinitely.

British negotiators have suggested a time limit could help unlock a majority for the Brexit withdrawal treaty in Parliament, but it has always been ruled out by the EU. This is because it is supposed to act as an insurance policy preventing a hard border.

Brussels yesterday criticised Mr Johnson’s ‘kamikaze’ Brexit strategy and gave him ten days to strike a new deal or face the prospect of another delay.

Hopes of an agreement ahead of the summit were fading as details of one UK idea for solving the Irish border conundrum were leaked and rejected.

The bloc’s incoming trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, said EU leaders believed another extension beyond October 31 was now more likely than striking a deal. He said: ‘There’s been a lot of activity on Brexit in the last three years and they’re wondering when the next extension’s coming because inevitably that’s the way things are developing.’

He said Britain had until the middle of next week to strike a deal so there is enough time to draw up a new protocol which can be signed off by EU leaders at the summit. He added: ‘We’re talking about ten days to do a deal and it doesn’t always happen that quickly around here.’ Senior diplomats have been left questioning whether Mr Johnson is serious about a deal following the submission of four ‘non-papers’ – informal discussion papers. One said: ‘We’re open to many more ideas coming from the UK side. We’re open to any proposals, but they’ve not managed to reach Brussels yet. The kamikaze way this is now being dealt with by the UK Government is not something we’ve chosen.’

Casting doubt over a deal being struck, they added: ‘If, like the UK, you want to start from zero and build something completely new… it is going to be very difficult to achieve [by the deadline].’

Brexit Questions and Answers by Associate Editor JACK DOYLE 

What is happening today?

After months of speculation, Boris Johnson will reveal his Brexit proposal in a legal text sent to Brussels. Last night No 10 officials called it a ‘fair and reasonable compromise’ and a ‘final offer’.

What will the legal text say?

The details are being kept under wraps but Mr Johnson insists the EU must reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and scrap the backstop. He will also demand radical changes to the declaration which sets out the post-Brexit relationship.

Why does Mr Johnson want to get rid of the backstop?

The EU says the backstop is needed to keep an open border in Northern Ireland. But Mr Johnson says it keeps us tied to EU rules without any say over them.

Will the EU compromise?

Jean-Claude Juncker now says he doesn’t have an ‘attachment’ to the backstop, a possible softening of position. But the Commission remains dismissive of proposed ‘alternative arrangements’ and is pushing a Northern Ireland-only backstop that would keep the province tied to EU rules while the rest of Britain could go its own way.

What concessions has Mr Johnson made?

Mr Johnson has made clear he would accept an all-Ireland solution for food and farming, which will see Northern Ireland following EU rules on animal checks. The EU also wants the province to follow EU rules on manufactured goods.

What about customs?

A leak yesterday suggested Mr Johnson will propose ‘customs clearance centres’ on both sides of the border, but set back between five and ten miles so as not to inflame nationalist sentiment. The proposal was immediately dismissed by Dublin. Mr Johnson denied the specifics but accepted that customs checks ‘of some kind’ will be needed, which would be painful for Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar.

Is a deal possible?

Yes, but there isn’t a huge amount of optimism on either side. One senior minister said yesterday: ‘We’ve moved a long way, they need to move a bit too.’ One report suggested the EU could put a time limit on the Northern Ireland backstop but it wasn’t clear how long the limit would be. Commission officials denied the report.

Could any deal get through the Commons?

It’s a long shot in a Parliament dominated by Remainers. Mr Johnson no longer has a majority, and Jeremy Corbyn and the Lib Dems will vote against any deal. Unless he can convince the DUP, Mr Johnson hasn’t got a hope. He must get hardline Tory Eurosceptics onside and convince Tory rebels and Labour Leavers to back him.

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