‘Difficult to see’ how Brexit deal can be reached, EU’s Michel Barnier says

UK hopes of breakthrough on Irish border dashed by chief negotiator

Jon Stone
Monday 23 September 2019 15:37
Michel Barnier says It's 'difficult to see’ how Brexit deal can be reached

It is "difficult to see" how a Brexit deal on the Irish border can be reached, the EU's chief negotiator has said.

Michel Barnier told reporters that "the current state" of UK thinking on the issue meant that a replacement for the backstop looks improbable – raising the prospect of a no-deal exit in October.

Boris Johnson has ruled out agreeing to the policy, which is supposed to prevent a hard border in Ireland – but the EU says it will not sign a deal without the backstop or an alternative that achieves the same effect.

The warning comes after the UK floated "concepts" to tackle the issue in meetings last week – which EU officials privately warned would not be enough to prevent checks and controls from reemerging between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

British officials were hoping for a breakthrough and change in EU thinking when Boris Johnson meets with EU council president Donald Tusk on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York on Monday evening – an increasingly remote prospect after Mr Barnier's intervention.

“The new UK government wants us to get rid of this solution, the so-called backstop. I am sure you understand this is unacceptable. My mandate is clear: safeguarding peace and stability in Ireland and protecting the integrity of the single market," Mr Barnier said after meeting Germany's foreign minister in Berlin on Monday.

“Based on current UK thinking it is difficult to see how we can arrive at a legally operative solution which fulfils all the objectives of the backstop. It is in a very sensitive and difficult phase.”

The UK proposals, which have not yet been fleshed out beyond "concepts", involve Northern Ireland being aligned with the EU on some rules such as agriculture, known as SPS – but only with the say-so of the Stormont assembly. Northern Ireland would also remain part of a single Ireland electricity market.

But in other areas, such as manufactured goods and industrial goods, various "facilitations" would be employed so that there were checks and controls for products moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but they were carried out away from the border.

But EU officials said last week that the plans almost resembled the kind of thinking proposed by British negotiators during the early days of Theresa May's premiership – ideas they have long dismissed. They say the plans would not prevent checks and controls to the extent required to maintain the Northern Ireland peace process, and would also damage the integrity of the single market and facilitate smuggling.

Asked on Monday whether digital technology could help with the border, Mr Barnier said: “Objectively, there are possibilities. I don’t know how to inspect a cow with virtual methods.”

Notably, the withdrawal agreement agreed by Theresa May which includes the backstop already includes a clause that would allow the UK and EU to adopt "alternative arrangements" to the backstop if it can be proved that they exist. Brexiteers say the technology exists and that the backstop is therefore not needed; they fear that it will keep the UK in a customs union and prevent a free trade agreement with the US – a key goal of the right of the Conservative party.

Speaking in New York, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar warned that a hard border would be the UK's fault in the event of a no-del Brexit.

"There is one thing I do know about Brexit from the last two or three years, is that there are some people in Britain, perhaps not in government, but some people who took the view that France and Germany and the bigger countries would gang up on Ireland, and that's never happened," the Taoiseach said.

"There are also some people that believe at the last minute that Ireland will somehow fold or give up our position and that's not going to happen."

He added that a border "will happen as a consequence of the UK leaving without a deal, it won't be a decision we made and certainly won't be something we sign up to or agree to in any way".

Speaking last week Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that "the EU risks continuing to insist on a test that the UK cannot meet and that the UK parliament has rejected three times". He called for the UK to be given until the end of a transition period to work out an alternative backstop plan.

Emmanuel Macron and the EU's Finnish presidency have said any concrete proposals from the UK need to be presented by the end of September or "its over". The bloc's leaders are set to meet in mid-October at a European Council summit in Brussels, the last such meeting before the UK is due to crash out without a deal.

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