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UK’s May dithers over two Brexit options, EU unlikely to accept either

Kirsty Wigglesworth, AFP | Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at a meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi inside 10 Downing Street in central London on April 18, 2018

Leading a bitterly divided government, British Prime Minister Theresa May is prevaricating over two options for the UK’s future customs relationship with the EU, despite Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier pouring cold water on both.


Having repeatedly ruled out keeping Britain in the single market or customs union, May favours a ‘customs partnership’, in which the UK would collect tariffs on the EU’s behalf for all goods entering the country.

However, this idea is opposed by hardline Eurosceptics in her cabinet, including Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (who has described the proposal as “crazy”, arguing that it will leave too much power in Brussels’ hands).

Davis and Johnson prefer the ‘max fac’ (maximum facilitation) option, in which traders on an approved list would cross the border without physical customs checks, but with nebulously defined automated technology doing the job instead.

No hard border, say supporters of both proposals

Consequently – in a sign of weak authority following her decision to call an early general election in 2017, only for her Conservative Party to lose its majority – May put off making a decision by creating two groups within her cabinet to scrutinise the two proposals, due to report back in a private meeting on Tuesday.

Proponents of both options argue that they would permit the UK to make trade deals with countries outside the EU (a sacred cow for hardline Brexiters) while allowing the UK to avoid customs checks and tariff barriers in trade with the European bloc, thus preventing a ‘hard border’ between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. London, Dublin and Brussels all say they want to avoid this, seeing as the fortified frontier was symbolic of decades-long sectarian violence in Northern Ireland until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement abolished all physical manifestations of the border.

>> Read more: Brexit talks: why the UK-Irish border is so contentious

Options ‘won’t prevent a hard border’

However, the EU is sceptical of both proposals. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned Britain on February 5 that trade barriers are “unavoidable” if it does anything other than stay inside the single market and customs union. The same day, an unnamed senior Brussels official told The Guardian that May’s "customs partnership" idea is “unrealistic”.

A “customs partnership” or “max fac” “won’t prevent a hard border”, predicted Georgina Wright, co-ordinator of the Europe Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“I don’t think the EU and Ireland are willing to accept either option, although they are prepared to negotiate,” Wright continued. “Barnier has apparently said that both options are not suitable solutions.”

Seeing as both sides have agreed on an October 2018 deadline for a complete Brexit deal, the clock is ticking. “Barnier has indicated a degree of concern about the rate of progress,” said John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The EU’s approach is to say: ‘it’s up to you to make a proposal, and we’ll tell you what we think’. The ball is in May’s court.”

Tellingly, the British government has not said when it will decide whether it wants a “customs partnership” or “max fac”. “There is a widespread expectation that it will take until October,” Curtice noted.

‘Backstop’ solution for Northern Ireland

But – crucially – if by October the UK not has offered the EU an acceptable deal on a customs arrangement that would prevent a hard border, both have agreed that a ‘backstop’ will come into place for Northern Ireland. The province would stay in the single market and customs union while the rest of the UK leaves, thus creating a border within the country.

This would be absolute anathema to the Tory Party (officially called the Conservative and Unionist Party), not to mention the Northern Irish hardline unionist DUP, on which May relies for her parliamentary majority.

Ergo, the possibility of this ‘backstop’ coming into force may well focus minds in Westminister, suggested Wright.

“Some people in government and parliament think no deal is better than a bad deal, but most people want the situation to be resolved,” she said.

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