Brexit: Cabinet edges towards breakthrough over Irish border problem
Ministers on standby to hold a second cabinet meeting to sign off an agreed approach
Ministers are on standby to hold a second cabinet meeting as early as this week to sign off proposals resolving the impasse over what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.
Downing Street was also confident that, if the final issue holding up the withdrawal agreement was overcome, it would also be able to quickly nail down the shape of Britain’s future trading relations with the EU.
That would clear the way for both the withdrawal and future relations elements of Brexit to be approved by the European Council in November or December, and then to be voted on by the House of Commons before the Christmas break.
The step forward came after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, which saw ministers edge towards an agreed position.
One person at cabinet said: “Everyone wants this settled before Christmas.”
While there is no second cabinet meeting currently scheduled this week, insiders said ministers were ready to move swiftly if the breakthrough was made.
Negotiators have been deadlocked over what happens to the Irish border if a new trading relationship has not yet been agreed by the UK and EU by the end of the transition period in December 2020.
Under these circumstances Brussels’ position has been that Northern Ireland at least should remain in the EU’s customs union until a trade deal is set in stone, in order to keep the border with the republic open, but Ms May says she wants a solution where the whole UK remains in a customs arrangement but for a time-limited period.
Brexiteers have said they would only accept such a “backstop” arrangement if the UK can pull out of it unilaterally, something the EU has said it will not accept.
At Tuesday’s cabinet a significant intervention was made by attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who set out a range of proposals for a “review mechanism” that would allow the backstop to be terminated with the mutual agreement of the EU.
Aides confirmed reports in The Spectator that Mr Cox had set out the legal difficulties of the UK pulling out unilaterally, while also seeking to reassure Brexiteers that the review mechanism would not give the EU an effective veto on Britain leaving the backstop.
Some cabinet ministers still expressed concerns that unless the UK could leave the backstop at will, it would fail to pass through the Commons, but the new plan appeared to represent a step forward.
One cabinet level source said: “There is still work to do, but it’s true that Geoffrey made a substantial intervention.”
After the cabinet, Ms May’s spokesman said: “The prime minister said she was confident of reaching a deal.
“She said that, while the UK should aim to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this would not be done at any cost.
“The prime minister said that, once agreement was reached on a withdrawal agreement, it remains the case that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it will be subject to securing an acceptable full future framework.”
The Independent understands Downing Street believes the development means a withdrawal agreement could be agreed with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, and then in a period before an EU summit is held to sign it off, the outstanding parts of the outline future trading relationship could also be fleshed out.
The goal would then be for a European Council summit to approve the lot, passing the baton to MPs in the UK to vote on it in parliament before 20 December when the Commons rises.
Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told Theresa May on Monday that he was ready to consider a review mechanism as part of a “backstop” arrangement to keep the border with Northern Ireland open after Brexit.
But with the detailed UK proposals yet to be put to Brussels, Mr Barnier told Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Tuesday “still a real point of divergence” on the Irish issue.
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