Brexit latest: EU negotiators give UK 48-hour deadline to come up with new plan for Irish backstop

French Europe minister insists no details legal proposals have yet been presented by the UK

Jon Stone
Brussels
@joncstone
Thursday 07 March 2019 10:03
comments
French Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, insists no details legal proposals have yet been presented by the UK

Frustrated EU officials have urged UK Brexit negotiators to table a workable solution to the Irish backstop by Friday if they want a breakthrough in talks.

The UK is currently seeking changes to the withdrawal agreement to make it more palatable to Brexiteer MPs ahead of a crunch vote next week.

But speaking on Thursday morning French Europe minister Natalie Loiseau said there had been “no precise proposals” from the UK and that the EU side was still waiting.

A European Commission spokesperson had gone on the record in Wednesday to say talks so far had been “difficult” and that “no solution” was in sight.

“I'm not working on ifs and when's, I'm working on the positions or the proposals of the British government. We are waiting for a proposal from the British government, we have heard what you don't want, we are willing to know what you want,” Ms Loiseau told BBC Radio 4 early on Thursday.

“Let me tell you, there we no precise proposals, no. There were ideas, but there were never, until now - maybe there will be today because I know talks are going on in Brussels - but we are waiting for a sustainable proposal.”

Earlier in the week Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar told the Irish parliament the UK had proposed no actual legal text for the EU side to consider.

After his latest meeting Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said on Wednesday: “I cant reveal the discussions, they are private and confidential discussions but we are into the meat of the matter, both sides have exchanged robust, strong views and we are now facing the real discussions.”

A leaked diplomatic note from the EU side suggests the UK has proposed two possible changes to the controversial policy.

The note, first reported by BuzzFeed News, includes plans for an arbitration panel that would allow the backstop to end if one side or another was not judged to have taken “reasonable” steps to find alternatives to it.

The second proposal is that of a “mini-backstop” which would limit regulatory alignment only to areas crucial to avoiding infrastructure on the Irish border.

EU officials are said to have rejected both these plans because they believe they would undermine the certainty of the backstop preventing a hard border in Ireland.

Talks are said to be somewhat ill-tempered, with EU officials resenting yet another change of interlocutor on the UK side, following the departures of David Davis and Dominic Raab, a switch from visits by Ollie Robbins and the eclipsing of Stephen Barclay by Geoffrey Cox. Michel Barnier and Sabine Weyand have remained the EU's main negotiators throughout the process.

Theresa May is expected to visit Brussels herself either this weekend or on Monday, if there has been enough progress to produce some kind of concession.

Her visit would come one day ahead of the second planned meaningful vote on her deal, where the Government hopes to overturn MPs’ first decision to reject the plan. If her deal is rejected MPs are then on Wednesday scheduled to vote on a no-deal, and on Thursday whether Article 50 should be extended.

Brexiteer MPs do not like the backstop becuase they fear it will trap the UK in a permanent customs union with the EU. The DUP, on whom Theresa May relies for a majority, do not like it because it treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. The UK government agreed to the plan but then said it would renegotiate it after pressure from Tory MPs. The EU says the policy is necessary to prevent a hard border in Ireland and preserve the peace process.

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