UK team propose 'pared-down' free trade agreement to end Brexit stalemate

Friday 11th October 2019 07:30 BST

During talks between British and Irish leaders Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, moves were made towards turning the attention away from a wide-ranging withdrawal agreement, and instead towards a more straightforward free trade deal.

While a free trade agreement will not resolve all of the issues that have dogged the existing UK proposals, insiders have said it is a "cleaner and more straightforward" approach that could form the foundation for a more wide-ranging deal.

A free trade agreement between the UK and the EU would be likely to remove all tariffs on goods crossing between the two areas. However, it would not remove the need for all customs checks - a crucial sticking point in the talks so far.

Insiders are also encouraged by the positive reaction to talks today and think that Mr Varadkar's backing could be crucial in persuading other European leaders to support a deal.

A number of EU nations - particularly those that will not suffer significant direct repercussions - have made it clear that, as an act of unity with another smaller nation, they will support a proposal if it is backed by the Irish prime minister.

The British team insist that they have made "significant, wide-ranging concessions" and believe that Michel Barnier's contention that UK proposals are not "legally operable" is incorrect.

Some in Westminster feel that the EU has subtly changed its negotiating position. Last October, Mr Barnier, the EU's Brexit negotiator, outlined that customs checks on the Irish border needed to take place "in the least intrusive way possible", including online declarations and regulatory checks by "market surveillance authorities".

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British sources believe that these concepts are similar to the ideas they proposed last week, which Mr Barnier lambasted in the European Parliament. However, they believe that, if they can secure Mr Varadkar's support, the tide could turn in their favour.

Among EU diplomats, there remains a feeling that agreeing a Brexit deal before the end of October is a long shot, and that the most likely outcome is an extension. However, the mood has slightly changed.

"I thought it was dead, but now there is a tiny flicker of life," said one EU source. "It is a curious time."

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