Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

London — The British government set out its plans for a one-year backstop plan for the Irish border on Thursday, finding an agreement on only part of what has become Prime Minister Theresa May’s biggest Brexit stumbling block — customs.

However, by setting a date on the plan for the standby arrangement to ensure no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, May looked to have put settling a row with her Brexit minister ahead of securing agreement with the EU, which has already rejected a time limit.

The publication of the proposal comes after days of rows in May’s cabinet of top ministers which have all but stalled talks, brought warnings from EU officials and weighed on sterling, with investors uneasy over the lack of progress.

Unveiling its proposal for a "temporary customs arrangement", the government also said the backstop — which would be put in place only if there were a delay in implementing any Brexit deal — would also see the whole UK rather than just Northern Ireland remaining aligned with EU rules.

"The UK is clear that the temporary customs arrangement, should it be needed, should be time limited," the document, which was also sent to Brussels, said. "The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU."

This was not the government’s preferred option, the proposal said, but if it was triggered, Britain should have the right to negotiate and ratify trade deals with other parts of the world. The document looks to be a compromise to keep Brexit minister David Davis on board, after he raised concerns an earlier proposal had no end date and could see Britain tied to the EU’s customs union indefinitely.

A pro-European member of the ruling Conservative Party dismissed the move. "This doesn’t change anything.… This is more wishful thinking from the government. There is no way they are going to get a deal in time," the member said, on condition of anonymity.

The pre-publication row was yet another sign of the difficulty a weakened prime minister is having in driving the negotiations with the EU. She is struggling to unite not only her ministers but her Conservative Party over a strategy that will define Britain’s trading relationships for years to come.

Reuters