According to a leaked letter seen by The Times, the EU’s proposal to keep Northern Ireland in its customs union and regulatory area for goods will remain as a “backstop-to-the-backstop” in the event no future relationship is agreed, despite UK attempts for an all-UK customs backstop to replace this. In a letter to Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster, and her deputy Nigel Dodds, Prime Minister Theresa May said the EU was still insisting a Northern Ireland-specific arrangement remains as a “backstop-to-the-backstop,” but that the UK government will ensure this never “comes into force.” The DUP have interpreted this to mean the EU’s proposal would still be included in the Withdrawal Agreement. The letter also noted that the government “does not expect regulations to diverge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Foster said the letter “raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious Union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the UK.” A government spokesperson said, “[The Prime Minister] has been absolutely clear about…never accepting any circumstances in which the UK is divided into two customs territories. The government will not agree anything that brings about a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
Meanwhile, the UK and Ireland have both played down suggestions that a Withdrawal Agreement is imminent. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested it would be “pushing it” to expect a deal in the next week, while his Irish counterpart, Simon Coveney, said, “I would urge caution that an imminent breakthrough is not necessarily to be taken for granted, not by a long shot.” This comes after Austrian daily Der Standard yesterday reported that UK and EU negotiators could have an agreement by Monday, and a special summit of EU leaders could be convened on 25 November. Elsewhere, the Financial Times reports that the UK cabinet is prepared for a possible meeting on Saturday to approve a full draft of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Elsewhere, former Brexit minister Steve Baker said that the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs would vote against a Brexit deal even if Prime Minister Theresa May manages to negotiate an exit clause from the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. Baker said, “In the end, it’s not really about the backstop.The tearing frustration is that the UK has been negotiating with itself. Many of us have long believed that the row over the backstop is at least partly confected in order to have an orchestrated breakthrough.” He added that MPs would be focusing on the political declaration outlining the future relationship, explaining, “Conservative MPs expect to get some commitment for the money. The overwhelming attitude of Conservative MPs is that paying £39bn for nothing is totally unacceptable.”
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