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Report of deal to keep UK in customs union post-Brexit is 'speculation', Flanagan says

Sources told the Sunday Times that Theresa May has secured concessions from Brussels.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan
Image: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

REPORTS THAT SUGGEST Britain would remain in a temporary customs union with the EU, avoiding a hard Irish border, as part of a new deal being thrashed out have been dismissed as “speculation”. 

Senior sources told the Sunday Times that British Prime Minister Theresa May has secured concessions from Brussels, with the EU agreeing to write an “all-UK” customs union into the divorce deal.

This would avoid the EU’s “backstop” solution that would have treated Northern Ireland differently from the rest of Britain.

There will also be an “exit clause” from the customs union in a bid to convince Brexiteers that it is not a permanent arrangement as May looks to secure enough votes to get the deal through parliament, it added.

Downing Street refused to confirm the report, telling AFP it was “all speculation”, but that negotiations were “going well”.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan also branded the report as “speculation”. 

“There’s a lot of media speculation … which is no more than that, speculation,” Flanagan said. 

“I’m not going to say anything that’s going to add to that speculation,” he said. 

I do regard it as speculation. However, it must be seen in the context of a rapidly ticking clock as we move towards the end of the year and as we move towards timelines needing to be met. 

Flanagan said that Irish priorities “are very much in evidence”, and in that regard, “it’s absolutely essential now that we see the written legal text which is the backstop”. 

According to RTÉ, the Department of Foreign Affairs has said the UK has given written commitments last December and March that the withdrawal agreement will give a legal guarantee of no return to a hard border in Ireland in any circumstance. 

The Irish border has proved the biggest obstacle to a deal, with both sides vowing not to reinstate a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland for fear of destabilising the peace accord that ended decades of deadly sectarian violence.

Under the reported deal, the EU accepts that regulatory checks on goods can be carried out in factories and shops rather than at the border, the Sunday Times said.

That keeps open the possibility of Britain securing a future free trade agreement similar to the one signed between Canada and the EU in 2016.

The opposition UK Labour party has all but ruled out supporting any deal May reaches with Brussels, leaving the prime minister reliant on her slender parliamentary majority that comprises her own divided MPs and coalition partners the DUP of Northern Ireland.

Legal warning

According to the report, May is expected to warn her most stridently anti-EU MPs that they will be held responsible for the consequences of a no-deal Brexit if they do not vote for her deal.

However, if these Brexiteers are not convinced that the customs union is only a temporary measure they would almost certainly rebel.

Her cabinet is due to hold talks over the plan on Tuesday, with a potential EU summit pencilled in for the end of November if they agree enough progress has been made.

Parliament would then vote on the deal in December.

May’s former Brexit minister David Davis warned in the newspaper that she must be transparent about the legal foundation of her deal or suffer the same “mess” that Tony Blair did over the Iraq War.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has been contacted for comment. 

With reporting by © AFP 2018 

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