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Boost for Theresa May as EU says Brexit deal on Irish border 'very close'

3 min read

Theresa May's hopes of securing a Brexit deal have been given a boost after EU sources said a compromise on the Northern Ireland border issue was now "very close".

A member of chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier's team reportedly told diplomats on Thursday night that the two sides were approaching an agreement.

The move - first reported by news agency Reuters - followed talks between Mr Barnier and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, who last night said he was "very keen" to see a deal between the sides by November.

Avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic Of Ireland has so far proved a key sticking point in talks with the EU.

Theresa May has said her own Chequers plan - which aims to limit checks across the frontier by aligning with EU rules on goods - is the only way to avoid a hard border while maintaining the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.

But Brussels has previously given the plans a frosty reception and called for the UK to agree a more stringent "backstop" which would effectively see Northern Ireland stay in the EU's customs union if no other arrangement can be agreed.

The fresh compromise plan being thrashed out by both sides would reportedly see the UK accept that any fallback arrangement on Northern Ireland could not be time-limited.

Meanwhile, the EU would allow the whole of the UK - not just Northern Ireland - to stay in a customs union with Brussels until a technological solution to the border issue can be found.

But such a deal could spell trouble for Mrs May, who is under intense pressure from Conservative Brexiteers to abandon her entire Chequers strategy and pursue a Canada-style free trade deal with the EU.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who quit the Cabinet over the PM's Brexit plan, this week branded the EU's backstop proposals "constitutionally abominable".

But fellow Brexiter Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, has said he could back a compromise deal as he warned Tory troops not to chase perfection.

"Whilst I may be very sympathetic with those who take an ideologically purist position, we are also politicians whose job is to be able to deliver," the frontbencher told Bloomberg.

Dr Fox added: "There are two things that some people don’t quite seem to grasp. One is that we have no majority in the House of Commons - and even if we did, that doesn’t guarantee that we have got a Leaver majority. And the reality is that we will have to get any deal through the House of Commons in the end."

On Friday morning Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, said she believed a deal with the UK was now "90 percent complete".

She told the Today programme: "I do believe that we can reach an agreement. I am confident given the fact that we have done a huge amount of work on the withdrawal agreement - it is about 90 per cent complete.

"We have agreed in principle a transition period. I do think there is a lot of common ground in terms of the future relationship moving forward, so we are really now at the critical point."

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