EU hands Theresa May a Brexit lifeline on Irish border in attempt to win over Tory rebels
The European Union today handed Theresa May a lifeline by leaving open the possibility of using technology as a way of maintaining an open border in Ireland.
A draft roadmap on the future relationship between the UK and the bloc conceded that "alternative arrangements" could be used to avoid physical customs checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
That is a reference to so-called "maximum facilitation", the solution to the Irish border issue favoured by Tory eurosceptics planning to vote down the Prime Minister's deal.
But the proposed political declaration also included plans for a fishing quota scheme with EU member states, as well as a role for the European Court of Justice - both of which will anger pro-Brexit MPs.
The 28-page document was published following talks in Brussels last night between Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
On customs, it says: "The parties will put in place ambitious customs arrangements, in pursuit of their overall objectives. In doing so, the parties envisage making use of all available facilitative arrangements and technologies, in full respect of their legal orders and ensuring that customs authorities are able to protect the parties’ respective financial interests and enforce public policies.
"To this end, they intend to consider mutual recognition of trusted traders’ programmes, administrative cooperation in customs matters and mutual assistance, including for the recovery of claims related to taxes and duties, and through the exchange of information to combat customs fraud and other illegal activity.
"Such facilitative arrangements and technologies will also be considered in developing any alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing."
The Prime Minister dialled up an emergency conference call with Cabinet minsters this morning to ensure she has their backing for the plans, and she will address MPs in the Commons this afternoon.
Mrs May has been racing against time to get the deal in place before EU leaders rubber-stamp it at a special Brussels summit on Sunday.
She is also battling with her MPs - as well as opposition parties and her confidence-and-supply partners in the DUP - to convince them to back it when it comes before parliament in early December.
Dozens of Tories have highlighted concerns over the draft withdrawal agreement - the part that governs the UK exit from the bloc - particularly over a so-called ‘backstop’ plan to protect the Irish border.
Elsewhere, the document fails to promise "frictionless trade" between the EU and UK - which Mrs May pledged in her original Chequers plan for Brexit.
'VICTORY FOR VAGUENESS'
But much of the document failed to provide solid proposals for the future arrangements, instead falling back on ambitions and intentions the UK and EU have agreed to work towards.
Labour MP Stephen Doughty - speaking on behalf of the anti-Brexit Best for Britain campaign - said the political declaration was a “victory for vagueness”.
He branded it “a series of tiny fig leaves in a desperate 11th hour attempt to stem a mass rebellion on the backbenches of the Conservative party”.
And he said: “They have no legal status, and would no doubt be subject to years of future fraught negotiations.
“With no deal now exposed as a hollow threat, this shows why we need a people's vote on this so called deal to break the parliamentary deadlock.”
But a No 10 spokesman said: "The PM has been clear throughout that she would only agree to what she believed was the best deal for the UK."