But Michel Barnier insisted he did not “just reject the white paper outright” and instead highlighted “two major problems” which he specifically said made the PM’s plan unacceptable to the EU.
The comments were made at a private meeting between Mr Barnier and MPs on the Commons Brexit Committee on Monday; a transcript of the meeting was released on Friday by the commons authorities.
The senior EU official said there were “lots of positive things” in the white paper, but that fundamental problems meant that “your proposal does not seem workable to us, basically”.
Ministers have said categorically that the choice in Brexit talks is between the acceptance of Chequers and a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Barnier reiterated to the MPs what he has repeatedly said in public: that the EU would not accept splitting up aspects of the single market, and that it would not delegate EU customs duties to British officials once the UK was no longer a member state.
There was a mild Westminster row about Mr Barnier’s appearance at the committee meeting after Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who was present, said Mr Barnier had made it clear that the Chequers deal was “completely unacceptable to the EU”.
The transcript of the meeting was released in order to clarify what had or had not been said at the meeting, as the government still insists that its proposals have a chance.
Asked by the committee’s chair whether Chequers was “not going to fly” or “dead in the water”, Mr Barnier responded: “First of all, let me say once again, unlike what I have seen and heard over recent days, following a rather too brief reading of my interview to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, basically in the white paper there are lots of positive things, lots of useful things, just to make that absolutely clear.
“I did not just reject the white paper outright; that is just not true. I hope that you will understand that.
“Secondly, we have two major problems, two issues that we cannot accept. Our customs union, our customs system, as it works, is a fully integrated system that cannot be undermined and we cannot split up the four freedoms of the single market. We are prepared to discuss a customs agreement of some sort that simplifies customs arrangements between the United Kingdom and the EU. Customs cooperation could even be part of a free trade agreement, if it went that far, but we do have a problem with the way in which our customs controls and checks work at the moment.
“There is a clear link between customs controls and regulatory controls and that is not covered in your white paper. Your proposal does not seem workable to us, basically.”
The UK and EU both say they need to come up with a withdrawal agreement by October/November to avert a no-deal Brexit. The agreement must cover the biggest outstanding issue, Northern Ireland – as well as citizens' rights, the financial settlement, and other assorted smaller issues.
The future relationship does not need to be technically agreed in full to prevent a no deal, though the UK says it wants a framework spelled out by the time it leaves on 29 March 2019 and that MPs would not accept the withdrawal agreement without such a framework. The government has written into law that there must be a vote on the framework for the future relationship.
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