The British Prime Minister has claimed an EU proposal for a ‘common regulatory area’ between the EU and the North of Ireland would “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK”.
Released in Brussels on Wednesday by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the text puts into legal terms a joint report agreed by Britain with the EU in December. It effectively codifies a proposal for the North of Ireland to have special status with the EU as the default measure to ensure that no ‘hard border’ across Ireland will result from the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
On the crucial issue of the Irish border, the draft text spells out in detail how the principle of “regulatory alignment” agreed in December would be implemented if Britain fails to find technological or diplomatic solutions to keeping the border open.
The EU text states that if no technological or diplomatic solutions are found to keeping the border open, the fallback framework is that “the territory of Northern Ireland, excluding the territorial waters of the United Kingdom ... shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union”.
It suggests that EU and British customs authorities should jointly oversee movements between Ireland and Britain, while Europe would remain involved in aspects of taxation and state aid in both parts of Ireland.
However, there was a strong reaction in London.
“No UK prime minster could ever agree to it,” Mrs May told MPs.
Answering questions in parliament shortly after the publication of the text, she said: “The draft legal text the Commission have published would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea.”
There was also a sharp reaction from unionists.
The proposals sparked anger from the DUP, with leader Arlene Foster calling it “constitutionally unacceptable.” She said the North of Ireland must have “unfettered access” to the British market.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds claimed the EU was using the peace process as an excuse to “thwart” Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Despite the majority vote two years ago by the people of the North of Ireland to remain within the European Union, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley hit out at what he saw as EU efforts to “annex” the area, while the Ulster Unionist Party ironically claimed there was an attempt to override the principle of consent of the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald condemned the reaction from the British government and the DUP to the EU legal text.
Speaking in the Dail, she said: “The Tory-DUP axis is satisfied to treat the welfare of the people of this island as collateral damage so long as they achieve their ‘little Englander’ vision for Brexit.
“The position of the Tory-DUP Brexiteers is that they will have their Brexit at any cost. Except it won’t be them who foots the bill. It will be the ordinary people of this island both north and south.
“That can’t be allowed to happen. The Tory-DUP wrecking agenda cannot prevail.”
In a high-profile speech at London’s Mansion House on Friday, the British prime minister subsequently set out five “foundations” for Britain’s negotiators, but provided scant details on the issue of the border.
She said she believed that the border should be “as frictionless as possible” through a “customs arrangement” and by ensuring that British regulatory standards “remain at least as high” as those of the EU.
She also hinted at proposals to reduce delays at border crossings by recognising “trusted traders” and by “drawing on the most advanced IT solutions so that vehicles do not need to stop at the border”.
Mary Lou McDonald said May’s speech was “no more than empty rhetoric and contradictory positions”. She said May had “failed to grasp the hard truths and realities that we face.”
“The hard truth is that Brexit is incompatible with the wishes of the people of the north, acts against our economy and undermines our agreements,” she said.
“The British government knows this and that is why they have failed to bring forward any workable solutions or new thinking.
“Instead Prime Minister May discarded the agreement she made in December and retreated to proposals from last year – proposals for a fantasy technological border and trusting traders to make truthful disclosures.
“These proposals lack any credibility and have been dismissed by the EU.
“The clock is ticking on the negotiations and the position outlined by the British Prime Minister is a step backwards.”