What are the obstacles to an EU withdrawal agreement?

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Here are some of the questions being asked about the impasse in the Brexit talks:

– What is the biggest obstacle to a withdrawal agreement?

The main remaining issue is the Irish border, with the UK and EU sides divided on the best way of avoiding the need for checkpoints.

– Why do they want to prevent a hard border?

Regulatory and customs checks at hundreds of crossing points between Northern Ireland and the Republic would cause massive disruption to individuals and businesses. There are fears that checkpoints and cameras could become the target of sectarian violence.

– What is the UK Government’s favoured solution?

London thinks the border can be kept open as part of a broader trade deal which does away with the need for checks.

– What is Brussels proposing?

The EU is insisting on a “backstop” arrangement as a fallback to be used until a broader deal is in place.

This would involve Northern Ireland effectively remaining part of the European customs area, with checks taking place at ports and ferries between the region and the British mainland instead of at the border.

– What does the UK think of that?

Theresa May says no prime minister could accept it, as it would create a customs border down the Irish Sea and undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom.

(PA Graphics)

Mrs May has put forward an alternative backstop, featuring a temporary arrangement keeping the whole of the UK in a customs union, which she expects to be lifted by the end of 2021.

– Is that acceptable to Brussels?

Only if there is a “backstop to the backstop”, so that when the temporary UK-wide arrangement runs out, the Northern Irish carve-out would come into effect.

– Does Mrs May at least have support in the UK for her proposal?

A lot of Conservative MPs – reportedly including some Cabinet ministers – are concerned that a “temporary” backstop would become permanent. They want any agreement to include a firm date for it to lapse.

– When will this come to a head?

Leaders of the remaining 27 EU states meet on Wednesday to decide whether to call a special summit in November to provide one last chance for agreement or to use the mooted gathering as an opportunity to step up preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

If agreement is reached, MPs will vote on it in the House of Commons before Christmas, followed by a vote of MEPs in the European Parliament.

– If Mrs May can reach agreement with Brussels, can she get it through Parliament?

This is highly questionable.

Depending on the nature of any deal, she could lose support from as many as 80 hardline Brexiteers on one side of her party or an estimated 30 Europhile Tories on the other.

The DUP’s 10 MPs have made clear they will not back anything which means Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK.

And the PM will struggle to win much support from Labour MPs, with the party’s leadership insisting it will vote down anything which fails its six tests.

– Are there any other remaining obstacles?

Both sides say progress has been made on other issues in recent days.

But there has so far been no public announcement of agreement on the issue of the European Court of Justice’s role in overseeing the withdrawal deal or the future status of geographical indications which protect local delicacies like Stilton cheese, Champagne or Parma ham.

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