Headteacher Michel Barnier is waiting for Theresa May’s homework on the Irish border – and he’s increasingly disappointed

Brexit negotiator still hasn’t received the British Government’s ‘specific solutions’ that were promised when the first phase of the Brexit talks were agreed

John Rentoul
Wednesday 28 February 2018 16:04
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Michel Barnier says Customs checks could be imposed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to avoid hard border

Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, is good at treating the British as if they are recalcitrant pupils. “We look forward to receiving these proposals,” he said with icy sarcasm at his news conference in Brussels today.

He was talking about the British Government’s “specific solutions” for the Irish border that were promised when the first phase of the Brexit talks were agreed in December.

He explained with the patient, deliberate air of someone who has had to explain simple concepts many times before. The UK had agreed that there were three ways of giving effect to its promise of no hard border between north and south in Ireland, he said.

One was the trade deal between the UK and the EU, but “obviously this solution will not be available at the point of withdrawal”, he said. The detailed trade deal won’t be finalised by 29 March next year – it is supposed to be sorted out during the transition period after the UK leaves.

The second option is Theresa May’s homework – the UK’s promise of “specific solutions” to keep an open border during the transition period.

That leaves option three, what Barnier calls “the backstop”, which is what is spelt out in the EU draft withdrawal agreement published today. This would in effect keep Northern Ireland in the EU while the rest of the UK left.

Back in Britain, Prime Minister’s Questions started while Barnier was still speaking. Trying to watch both at the same time was like switching between the headteacher’s study and the classroom. In the rowdier chamber, the backstop was described as the EU’s attempt to “annex” Northern Ireland.

Theresa May forcefully declared, not once but twice: “No UK prime minister could ever agree to it.” Which seemed a bit odd on the face of it, because she had agreed to the backstop option in December to secure the deal to move on to the next phase of the Brexit negotiations.

Of course, the words she agreed then were written in fudge – so much so that they were, eventually, acceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party. Barnier’s tactic is to turn the fudge into hard legal language and put the most unhelpful interpretation on it, in order to try to flush out the British Government’s counter-proposals.

At his news conference, a journalist asked if he was trying to shock the UK into action. “I am familiar with the British political situation,” he said. “I am not trying to provoke. I am not trying to create shock waves.”

Perish the thought.

As the questions dragged on, Barnier’s mask of superior calm started to slip. He became tetchy when it was suggested that some EU member states were unhappy with his tough negotiating position. “In the General Council yesterday I received the unanimous support of all governments,” he said.

When another journalist said the EU’s stand against British “cherry picking” was a bluff, he said: “You should be getting to know me better. I don’t bluff anybody.”

Well, both sides will have to compromise at some point.

The Prime Minister has promised to hand in her essay on Friday, when she makes a speech setting out the next stage of her thinking on Brexit. I suspect that headteacher Barnier will be sending her homework back with some cutting comments on it. “More work needed.”

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