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Q and A: Irish border remains main obstacle on path to a Brexit agreement

A sign, erected by 'Border Communites Against Brexit', outside Newry, Co. Down. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday February 9, 2018. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

By David Wilcock and Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Staff

Theresa May has warned that although Brexit talks with the EU are "now in the endgame", there are still significant issues that separate London and Brussels.

With Britain's scheduled March departure from the multinational trade bloc rearing up ever larger on the horizon, questions remain over whether a withdrawal agreement can be made.

Here are answers to some of the main questions about what still separates the two sides:

- What is the biggest obstacle to a withdrawal agreement?

The main remaining issue is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with the UK and EU sides divided on the best way of avoiding the need for checkpoints - the so-called "hard border".

- Why do they want to prevent a hard border?

Regulatory and customs checks at hundreds of crossing points used by thousands of vehicles every day would cause massive disruption to individuals and businesses.

An open border was also part of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence, and there are fears that checkpoints and cameras could become the target of sectarian attacks.

- 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 has repeatedly said no prime minister could accept such a plan, as it would create a customs border down the Irish Sea and undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom.

- So what does London propose?

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. On Monday, she warned she will not accept "an agreement at any cost".

- 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.

- What do Ireland say about the backstop?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last week: "There can be no expiry date and there can be no unilateral exit clause, and if it were to be either of those things, the backstop would not be worth the paper it was written on."

- 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 and want any agreement to include a firm date for it to lapse. Others on the Remain side are concerned that Britain would be a rule-taker without a say on a major chunk of economic policy.

- 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.

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