European diplomats have been told that it's still not clear where the UK stands on finding a solution to avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland after Brexit, according to a diplomatic note circulated to European capitals on Wednesday.
The note, seen by BuzzFeed News, states that EU negotiators are hoping Theresa May's team will provide clarity by the middle of next week. That expectation, however, has been received with some pessimism among ambassadors of the EU’s remaining 27 member states who met with the European Commission earlier today.
Although talks between the two sides resumed this week, negotiations remain stuck on the issue of the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland under all circumstances. The solution the EU proposes – to be used only if an alternative, and a future trade deal, was not agreed in time – would see the UK in a customs union, and Northern Ireland remaining, in effect, in the EU’s single market for goods.
Solving the backstop is crucial to securing a withdrawal agreement. Without consensus on that issue, negotiations will not move on to discussions about a framework for the future UK-EU relationship – and avoiding the no-deal scenario.
According to the diplomatic note, the latest idea on the table – devised by the EU to accommodate British concerns and requests – would feature a multi-tiered solution to unlock the backstop stalemate. This would include a bare bones customs union for the whole of the UK, covering duty and quota-free trade, with Britain committing to a common external tariff.
A customs union, however, would not remove the need for all regulatory checks and controls between the UK and the EU, meaning that a legally-binding "backstop to the backstop" for only Northern Ireland would still be required.
Diplomats were told that the EU is still waiting for the UK to clearly state its position on this offer, and what it is prepared to accept in order to conclude a deal.
The feeling in Brussels is that Theresa May is trying to perform a balancing act between the DUP, her partners in government who do not accept the Northern Ireland-only elements of the backstop, and hardline Brexiteers who are not prepared to part ways with the EU without a fully autonomous trade policy.
Some European governments, meanwhile, feel the EU has already been too flexible in its offer to the UK. A diplomatic source told BuzzFeed News that a number of member states, including France, expressed concerns during Wednesday’s meeting, and are not too keen about setting out the terms of a customs union within exit arrangements. These governments believe a more detailed discussion would be needed, and a customs union is not an issue that can be solved in a matter of days.
Elsewhere, the diplomatic note confirms that before the European Council summit of EU leaders, held earlier this month, UK and EU negotiators had indeed explored the possibility of extending the transition period by bolting on an additional year to the 2020 deadline currently planned.
But, the note says, any extension would require the UK to commit to a financial contribution to cover the additional year and, although the offer of extending is still on the table, May’s government has made no such commitment yet, thus stalling that discussion.
Though the European Commission briefed the 27 diplomats that it is hopeful of some clarity in the middle part of next week, a diplomatic source told BuzzFeed News they were pessimistic.
The source said they were sceptical that things could move forward that quickly because of the political deadlock in London.
All the while, time to secure a deal is fast running out. The UK has indicated that any deal would need to be finalised by the end of November due to the time needed by the UK parliament to ratify any agreement.
The European Commission declined to comment.