The Democratic Unionists have cast fresh doubt on the Theresa May’s ability to get a Brexit deal through parliament after the party insisted that any plans for the Irish border had to meet its “blood red” line on no new barriers to trade with the rest of the UK.
Following a meeting in Brussels with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, DUP leader Arlene Foster dismissed suggestions that she was ready to soften her position, and said her party would not accept any new regulatory checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
In order to make progress on the UK’s withdrawal agreement at a European Council summit next week, Brussels and London must agree plans for a ‘backstop’ to maintain the status quo along the Irish land border, with trade flowing freely between the Republic of Ireland and the north.
However, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said he no longer expected either EU or UK plans for the backstop to be published ahead of next week’s summit, with proposals only being revealed in the negotiating room.
Rejection of any kind of special status for Northern Ireland inside the EU customs union by the DUP, which props up Mrs May’s government, makes getting a deal through parliament much more challenging.
Meanwhile, Tory Brexiteers have warned against a possible compromise that would keep the whole UK in the customs union, fearing it would mean staying in the EU in all but name.
Former Brexit minister Steve Baker said up to 40 MPs were ready to vote against “a backstop that leaves us in the internal market and customs union come what may.”
“It is vital that the European Union understands the sensitivities surrounding Northern Ireland and that fact that we are going to be the only integral part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the European Union after we leave next year,” Ms Foster said in Brussels.
“There cannot be barriers to trade in the UK internal market which would damage the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and therefore we could not support any arrangements which would give rise to either customs or regulatory barriers within the UK internal market.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds, who also took part in the meeting, said any type of trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the UK would be “disastrous”.
Following the meeting with the DUP delegation, Mr Barnier tweeted that his team are “working hard to explain and de-dramatise the backstop”.
In a statement to the Commons updating MPs following a summit of EU leaders in Salzburg last month, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab denied the UK would stay in the customs union indefinitely, and said the government would “press our case” for an outcome that will “preserve the integrity of the UK”.