Brexit latest: Backstop border agreement is ‘legally firm’

Latest: A spokesman for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said the ‘backstop’ solution to the border issue is “legally firm”.

That solution envisages Northern Ireland effectively remaining within the EU customs union if no other solution is found and has been assented to in principle.

“The backstop is as legally firm as the government said it would be in December,” the spokesman said in comments reported by Reuters.

“The UK has today publicly accepted the need for such a backstop to be in the text of the (EU) withdrawal agreement.”

“The backstop applies unless and until something better is agreed.”

Update 5.39pm: Calls for protection of rights for people in the North

Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson said the British Government should come up with credible proposals to ensure the rights of people in the North are protected.

That’s after no agreement was reached on the right operational approach to avoid a hard border in the EU's draft agreement.

A "backstop" solution envisaging Northern Ireland effectively remaining within the EU customs union if no other solution is found has been assented to in principle.

Anderson said: "It is clear from today's meeting between David Davis and Michel Barnier that the British government have now accepted the agreements it has already entered into both in December and just weeks ago when the draft withdrawal agreement was published.

"Despite denials from Theresa May there is now confirmation that the British government is accepting the agreements made, including the backstop option which would see the north remaining in the customs union and significant elements of the single market."

She added: "The Taoiseach must now ensure that the rights of people in the North are protected and that the outstanding issues are addressed in a way that realises his pledge that citizens in the north will never again be left behind by an Irish government."

Downing Street listed a number of improvements which the UK has secured in the draft text, compared to the version put forward by the European Commission last month, including:

  • - Explicit agreement that the UK can sign and ratify trade deals during the transition period, to be brought into force on January 1 2021;
  • - The ability for the UK to act in international bodies in its own right during the transition period;
  • - Freedom for the UK to move to future arrangements on foreign policy and defence collaboration as soon as they are ready and not to be bound to accept or apply EU decisions it does not agree with;
  • - Creation of a joint committee to oversee the transition agreement, with a clear commitment on both sides to act in good faith;
  • - Wording to make clear that Gibraltar is included in the agreement;
  • - Safeguards to ensure that the UK is consulted on fishing quotas for 2019, with a commitment that Britain's share of the total catch cannot change;
  • - Agreement that UK citizens will be free to live and work in the EU during the transition period and a reduction from two years to six months in the proposed "grace period" for EU citizens to apply for immigration status in the UK.

Update 2.45pm: No agreement on right operational approach to Irish border

No agreement has yet been reached on the right operational approach to avoid a hard border, the EU's draft agreement showed.

A "backstop" solution envisaging Northern Ireland effectively remaining within the EU customs union if no other solution is found has been assented to in principle.

All sides are united in their desire to create a frictionless border after Brexit and the issue is expected to dominate talks next week.

The document said: "The negotiators have reached agreement on some elements of the draft protocol.

"They further agree that the full set of issues related to avoiding a hard border covered in the draft reflect those that need to be addressed in any solution.

There is as yet no agreement on the right operational approach, but the negotiators agree to engage urgently in the process of examination of all relevant matters announced on 14 March and now under way.

Theresa May's DUP allies are adamantly opposed to any deal creating a difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

    Details not yet agreed between the EU and UK included:

  • Measures creating an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic is protected.
  • Prohibiting customs duties on imports and exports between the EU and UK specific to Northern Ireland, including duties of a fiscal nature.
  • The banning of restrictions on imports and exports between the EU and Northern Ireland.
  • Internal taxation rules.
  • The application of EU law surrounding VAT and excise duties, agriculture, fisheries products and environmental protection to Northern Ireland.

Laws were agreed in principle surrounding state aid and the wholesale electricity markets; Northern Ireland is part of an island-wide energy market.

The Common Travel Area allowing free movement of UK and Irish nationals between Ireland and the UK was agreed.

The draft agreement said: "With respect to the draft protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, the negotiators agree that a legally operative version of the 'backstop' solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland...should be agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found."

The EU and UK agreed to maintain the necessary conditions for continued North-South cooperation, including in the areas of environment, health, agriculture, transport, education and tourism, as well as energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice and security, higher education and sport.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said it remained the UK's intention to achieve a partnership that was so close it did not need Northern Ireland-specific measures and pledged to engage in detail on all scenarios set out in December's Joint Report between the two sides.

He said: "We have also reached consensus on the full set of issues which need to be addressed in any solution in order to avoid a hard border, which is why, last week, we set out a work programme to tackle them.

There are also some elements of the draft protocol, such as the Common Travel Area, on which we agree.

"So while there is as yet no agreement on the right operational approach, we know what we need to do, and we're going to get on with it."

Earlier: UK must agree on border deal in Brexit negotiations

By Juno MacEnroe

Update 7.59am: Tánaiste Simon Coveney is expected to warn today the Brexit negotiations cannot move on unless Britain signs off this week on the backstop deal to ensure there is no hard border when it leaves the EU.

The EU and Britain are still divided on the contentious issue of the North but progress is needed if talks are to move ahead on a Brexit transition deal and a future trade agreement.

Mr Coveney will meet EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels today. This follows intense negotiations last week between the EU and British sides, ahead of a leaders summit later this week.

Britain needs the crucial transition deal, to soften any blows to business and allow a smooth exit by December 2020 or preferably beyond this EU deadline. Future trade talks are also a key demand.

This all hangs on agreeing to the draft December withdrawal treaty, which included the backstop clause to guarantee there would be no new border in the North even with a disorderly Brexit.

EU officials have signalled that without agreement on withdrawal, there will be no transition agreement, a position which will be decided by EU leaders, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, at the summit in Brussels on Friday.

The Irish Examiner understands no changes have been made to the December withdrawal text. However, Ireland is seeking an incentive clause in the new trade framework which would see it changed if Britain agreed to stay in the single market and customs union.

- Irish Examiner

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