Theresa May hit back today after the European Union issued proposals to “annex” Northern Ireland by creating a customs border between the province and the mainland. She said: “No UK prime minister could ever agree to it.”
In a bombshell development, Brussels published a legal text calling for Northern Ireland to remain subject to EU laws, including membership of the customs union.
Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar hailed the idea of a “common regulatory area”, which he said would avoid any risk of physical border checks reappearing on the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator, said the 120-page legal text should hold “no surprises” since the UK had promised to avoid a hard border, which all sides say would endanger the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Mr Barnier said the EU proposals were based on “legal principles, facts and solutions which are concrete and realistic”.
The plans drew outrage from Ulster unionists, who called them “offensive”, and from Brexiteers, who accused the EU of trying to exploit tensions in Northern Ireland to bounce the whole UK into remaining subject to EU law.
Ian Paisley Jr, one of the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs propping up Mrs May’s government in Westminster, urged her to “show some teeth”.
The ex-Cabinet minister and Brexiteer David Jones accused the EU of trying to “annex” Northern Ireland. Mrs May told MPs in the Commons today: “The draft legal text the [European] Commission has 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. No UK prime minister could ever agree to it.”
She said she would “make it crystal-clear” to Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker “and others that we will never do so”. Mrs May also said she would not “betray” the British people. In other developments:
The EU’s long-awaited draft legal text also called for the European Court of Justice to be the arbiter in treaty disputes, flouting Mrs May’s red line that it must have no sway over UK affairs.
It also rejected her plan to give less favourable rights to EU citizens who arrive in the transition period compared with those here before its scheduled start in March 2019.
Mr Barnier warned that the agreement of a transition period of about two years was “not a given”, implying there could be a full Brexit next year.
The draft text said: “A common regulatory area comprising the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland is hereby established. The common regulatory area shall constitute an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South co-operation protected.” Northern Ireland would be subject to “full alignment with those rules of the Union’s internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” until a better solution was shown to work.
Mr Barnier said alternative solutions were unlikely to be ready by the end of the transition period, expected to finish in Christmas 2020. “This is a backstop solution that we have to put in the withdrawal agreement,” he said. “It is the only way to guarantee that our joint commitments will be upheld.”
Britain’s solution — remote electronic checks that have yet to be devised — was undermined by the leak of a letter by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. He appeared to concede that up to five per cent of goods passing north and south would have to be checked manually.