Officials from the UK and EU are drawing up a plan to in effect keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and the single market after Brexit in order to avoid a hard border.
The opening of technical talks followed a warning from Brussels that keeping the region under EU laws was currently the only viable option for inclusion in its draft withdrawal agreement.
The development, first reported by the Guardian on Friday and later confirmed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, triggered an immediate row.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted: “If NI stays in single market, the case for Scotland also doing so is not just an academic ‘us too’ argument – it becomes a practical necessity. Otherwise we will be at a massive relative disadvantage when it comes to attracting jobs and investment.”
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a Tory MP and officer in the European Research Group of Brexit-supporting Conservatives, accused Barnier of “playing hardball”. “I am surprised that the media are reporting his comments as if they are the only voice and hard fact,” she said. “Perhaps Mr Barnier could remember that the UK is in negotiations, which is a two-way discussion.”
“It is important to tell the truth,” Barnier said. “The UK decision to leave the single market and to leave the customs unions would make border checks unavoidable. Second, the UK has committed to proposing specific solutions to the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. And we are waiting for such solutions.
“The third option is to maintain full regulatory alignment with those rules of the single market and the customs union, current or future, that support north-south cooperation, the all-island economy and the Good Friday agreement.
“It is our responsibility to include the third option in the text of the withdrawal agreement to guarantee there will be no hard border whatever the circumstances.”
British officials negotiating in Brussels had been told by their counterparts on Tuesday that while full alignment would be the only option included in the withdrawal treaty, there could be a “sunset clause” included in the legally binding text, which is expected to be published in about two weeks.
Such a legal device would make the text on Northern Ireland null and void at a future date should an unexpectedly generous free trade deal or a hitherto unimagined technological solution emerge that could be as effective as the status quo in avoiding the need for border infrastructure.