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Brexit backstop row: EU pours cold water on Theresa May’s plan for 'time limited' customs ties

3 min read

The European Union looks set to reject Theresa May’s plan for a “time limited” extension of Britain’s customs ties with Brussels, dealing a fresh blow to her plans to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.

Conservative Brexiteers have already slammed the so-called “backstop” proposal, which would keep the UK aligned with the EU’s customs union for a limited time while a longer-term solution on customs is drawn up. Leading eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg last night warned that it would reduce Britain to a “vassal state”.

Mrs May has insisted that the plan, which was signed off by the Prime Minister's Brexit 'war cabinet' last week, is a last resort and will apply only "in a very limited set of circumstances for a limited time".

But a Brussels source told The Independent that the withdrawal agreement signed off by Britain and the EU in December committed Britain to a backstop "unless and until" a permanent solution was found in Northern Ireland, rejecting plans for a specified end date.

An EU source said: "It will apply for as long as there is no credible alternative. It can’t be time limited or it’s not a backstop."

The UK has already rejected Brussels' own proposition for a backstop, which would apply just to Northern Ireland rather than the whole United Kingdom.

Mrs May has previously said that keeping continued customs alignment with Northern Ireland threatens "the break-up of the UK’s internal market" - a position which would be unacceptable to the DUP on whose Parliamentary support the Prime Minister relies.

A Government spokesperson told The Independent: "The fallback solution put forward by the EU is not acceptable, and that’s why we will be bringing forward our own proposal. We want to make progress as soon as possible."


The withering Brussels verdict came as Chancellor Philip Hammond was scolded by business chiefs for a lack of progress on a customs deal with the EU.

Speaking at the annual dinner of the CBI business lobby group, outgoing president Paul Dreschler warned that the drawn-out process was serving as a "hand-brake on our economy that can and must be released".

He urged ministers to opt for "plan A" and "choose to stay in a customs union with the EU, unless and until a better alternative can be found".

But Mr Hammond insisted that the Government shared the same aims as business.

He said: "I have listened to the four customs tests you have set out tonight, and we share your aspirations to minimise frictions and burden, to avoid new barriers in Ireland, and to grow British exports. But we do not agree that staying in the customs union is necessary to deliver them."

The Chancellor admitted that both long-term customs proposals under consideration by ministers were still “works in progress”, but he told the CBI the Government was "confident" it could "develop a solution that will allow us to move forward while meeting your concerns".

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