Northern Ireland could be given joint EU and UK status and a “buffer zone” on its border with the Republic, under new plans being drawn up by David Davis, according to reports.
There was no immediate response from Mr Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU to a report in The Sun suggesting the Brexit Secretary is to put forward a radical new solution to the thorny issue of future customs arrangements.
Theresa May’s Brexit war cabinet is split down the middle between the Prime Minister’s preferred “customs partnership”, under which the UK would gather tariffs on behalf of the EU, and the so-called “maximum facilitation” solution using technology to avoid the need for border checks.
With pressure mounting to agree a position before a summit of EU leaders on June 28, Mrs May set up two working groups to find amendments to the two schemes which could unite her feuding ministers.
According to The Sun, Mr Davis – who heads the Max Fac group – is ready to drop his support for technological solutions, after police warned that infrastructure like numberplate recognition cameras would become a target for sectarian attack.
Instead, he is reportedly drawing up a new plan based on the “double-hatted” model in place in Liechtenstein, which would allow the province to operate both UK and EU regulations at the same time.
A 10-mile wide “special economic zone” would be created along the 310-mile border, within which local traders could operate under the Republic’s trade rules.
An unnamed Whitehall source told the paper: “Max Fac 2 is tremendously complicated, but it’s at least something the Cabinet can unite around.”
The source acknowledged it would be a challenge to secure backing for the plan from the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Mrs May’s Government at Westminster and has made clear that it does not want Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.
Labour MP Virendra Sharma, a supporter of the Best for Britain campaign, said: “With these latest proposals anyone would think the Government is making this up as they going along.
“They are desperate for any solution, no matter how fantastical, to appease Tory right wingers.
“Even though it doesn’t pass basic scrutiny they don’t seem to care. (Jacob) Rees-Mogg is calling the shots at the moment and the Government are just doing his bidding.”
Labour MP Chris Leslie, a supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said: “If there was an award for coming up with unnecessarily complicated and convoluted solutions to self-inflicted problems, David Davis would win it every year.
“The solution to this dilemma is staring David Davis in the face: the UK as a whole must stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said that neither of the options for Northern Ireland being discussed by Mrs May’s Cabinet is “operational or acceptable”.
In a private meeting with members of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, Mr Barnier said: “The British have been moving forward with several ideas.
“They have two proposals which are being debated with British ministers. Neither of those proposals are operational or acceptable to us.”
The customs partnership and Max Fac proposals had previously been dismissed as unworkable in anonymous briefings by EU officials. Mr Barnier’s comments, filmed in a documentary for Vice News, are the clearest public statement so far of Brussels’s rejection of both schemes.
Responding to the chief negotiator, Italian MEP Roberto Gualtieri said: “Indeed, I agree with you that the two options on customs are totally unworkable.”
Mr Barnier told Vice he had “no certainty” about the nature of Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
“I can see the difficulty and intensity of this debate,” he said. “We are waiting for the British to have clear positions and choices.
“It is the decision of the British to leave the Union that has created the problem. No-one else. Nothing else.”
He added: “What is sometimes hard for the British to understand is that we don’t want to negotiate, we don’t want to compromise on who we are. They want to leave, it is their choice to leave.”
In response to queries about Mr Davis’s reported proposal, a Dexeu spokesman neither confirmed nor denied The Sun’s report.
The spokesman said: “We have set out two viable future customs arrangements with the EU and work is ongoing to refine these.
“Both of these would deliver on our commitments to ensure UK-EU trade is as frictionless as possible, avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, preserve the integrity of the UK’s internal market and enable us to establish an independent international trade policy.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “More and more by the day, Tory plans are sounding like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
“The public must be given the final say on the deal, with the opportunity to Exit from Brexit.”
Sinn Fein accused Mr Davis of trying to “hide a hard border in a buffer zone”.
Party MEP Martina Anderson said the reported proposals were “light on detail”.
“Once again this shows the lack of knowledge of border areas and the concerns they face – David Davis obviously didn’t learn much on his flying visits,” she said.
“The creation of a buffer zone would merely move the problem away from the border and hide a hard border in a buffer zone.
“While it appears that the British government is finally accepting that a unique solution is required for the north of Ireland, it must also accept the backstop option which it has already agreed.
“This proposed plan, which is still being devised, focuses solely on trade and does not take into account the huge impact Brexit will have on the rights of people in the north.
“The best way to protect trade, agriculture and the rights of people living in the north, as well as ensuring full protection for the Good Friday Agreement, is for the north to remain in the customs union and single market and to have special status within the EU.”