LONDON — Theresa May has been forced to reassure pro-Brexit ministers that she hasn’t yet reached a Brexit deal with the European Union amid reports that she has secretly made major concessions to Brussels.
Senior ministers want to agree on a deal with the EU this month in order to negate the need for expensive no deal planning and allow Parliament enough time to scrutinise and vote on the terms of the agreement.
However, the UK government is also keen to dispel suspicion among pro-Brexit Conservatives that May is preparing to make major concessions in order to strike a deal with the EU as soon as possible.
“We are not sitting on powder keg knowledge that we have signed a secret deal,” a UK government source told The Guardian. “We are not on the cusp of some seismic shift.”
Last month, a source close to Cabinet Brexiteers Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and Penny Mordaunt said that all three were prepared to resign if May agrees to a temporary customs union with the EU without a fixed end date.
EU figures have also rejected suggestions that a deal is done. Brussels sources claim there is just a 50-50 chance of there even being a deal, while negotiators seemingly have a lot of work still to do to resolve major issues.
UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab reportedly left Irish officials “stunned” last week by demanding that the UK has the right to unilaterally terminate any backstop for the Irish border after three months of it being in place.
EU and Irish officials are adamant that the backstop — the fallback option for guaranteeing no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland — must be in place until no longer necessary, not a fixed end date.
On Monday morning, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “The Irish position remains consistent and v clear that a “time-limited backstop” or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by IRE or EU. These ideas are not backstops at all + don’t deliver on previous UK commitments.”
He was backed up by Sabine Weyand, the EU’s Deputy Chief Brexit negotiator, who quoted Coveney’s tweeting saying: “Still necessary to repeat this, it seems.”
May will address her Cabinet on Tuesday with key questions regarding the UK’s Brexit proposals still unanswered.
The UK is trying to persuade the EU to ditch its preferred Northern Ireland-only backstop and accept an alternative version in which the entire whole UK stay in a customs union with the EU for a period of time after the 21-month transition has ended. This would mean no new customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
However, while this deals with customs, it does not address the tricky issue of regulations.
If Northern Ireland alone stays wedded to EU regulations, this would create new border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK relating to agriculture. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said last month that checks on live animals and animal-derived products would increase tenfold compared to what currently takes place.
The Democratic Unionist Party that props up May’s fragile government has described new checks as unacceptable and could withdraw the support for the Conservatives if the prime minister fails to satisfy their demands.
Barnier is set to deliver a speech in Brussels at 19:30 (GMT) where he is set to discuss the current state of Brexit talks.