London : There are fresh hopes of a Brexit deal as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier offered the UK an olive branch on the Irish Border.
Mr Barnier briefed EU ambassadors yesterday during a meeting in Paris on plans to offer Prime Minister Theresa May a UK-wide customs arrangement while a new trade deal is being negotiated.
The offer would see an invisible border maintained in Northern Ireland while also removing the need for customs check in ports or airports either side of the Irish Sea.
The proposal would be welcomed by Irish business owners and farmers who fear the introduction of trade tariffs will severely damage their profit margins.
It also opens up the possibility of a deal being struck before the end of the month, with November 21 being tipped as a possible date for an EU Summit on Brexit.
However, there are concerns Ms May will not be able to sell the deal to hardline Brexiteers who fear such an arrangement would permanently tie Britain to the EU.
Negotiators in Brussels and Dublin hope the deal would appease the Democratic Unionist Party who adamantly oppose any border down the Irish Sea.
The tentative proposal which the Irish Government is supporting would see Northern Ireland remain in a full customs union with the EU and adhere to single market rules on goods and agriculture.
Meanwhile, the rest of the UK would sign up to what is being described as a ‘bare bones’ customs arrangement involving tariffs being charged on good coming in from outside the EU.
The exact legal details of the proposed arrangement have yet to be negotiated but Britain may be able to enter into trade talks with other countries while it also discusses its future relationship with the EU. This would be a major step forward in negotiations but EU negotiators are anxious to maintain the integrity of the custom union and are eager to ensure the UK is not given an advantage over remaining member states on trade.
The proposed fall back customs arrangement or what is known as the ‘backstop’ would remain in place until the EU and the UK agree a post-Brexit trade deal.
However, Brexiteers fear the deal would tie Britain indefinitely to the EU.
Meanwhile, Tanaiste Simon Coveney and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan will take part in a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin today. The UK Government will be represented at the event by Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley
The group will discuss efforts to restore the North Ireland institutions along with talks on security cooperation both sides of the border and between the British and Irish Governments.
Officially, Brexit is not a topic for discussion at the event. However, it is likely the UK ministers will use the opportunity to discuss the negotiations with their Irish counterparts. Irish ministers have been told to tell UK ministers to speak to the EU negotiating team.
Last night, Mr Coveney said the talks “demonstrates that, despite the current challenges, both the Irish and UK governments are committed to developing the relationship between our countries and looking at ways to maintain and deepen our engagement”.
Mr Flanagan said: “We have common cause in combating the threat from paramilitaries who continue to reject the Good Friday Agreement.
“While considerable progress has been made on the security front, the need for continued action against paramilitaries and ongoing vigilance remains.”