Barnier warns of ‘real risk’ of no Brexit deal

EU’s chief negotiator says preparations must be made for no agreement on visit to Border area

Speaking in Dundalk during a two-day visit to Ireland and Northern Ireland, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has urged rapid agreement by June on the scope of any British alignment with the single market. Video: DFA


The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said that there is “a real risk” that no agreement will be reached with the UK in talks on its withdrawal from the political bloc.

Speaking on a visit to the Border area, Mr Barnier said that the EU was preparing for all options, including the possibility that Brussels and London cannot reach a deal on the UK’s departure in March 2019.

Negotiations have become bogged down over how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Speaking at an event in Dundalk, Co Louth, Mr Barnier and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar heaped further pressure on Britain to offer more detailed solutions to progress talks ahead of the next summit of EU leaders in June.

“There is a real risk; we have to be prepared for all options including no deal. It is not my preference,” Mr Barnier told the All-Island Civic Forum on Brexit, a gathering of civic and business groups, at Dundalk Institute of Technology.

Mr Barnier called for rapid agreement to be reached with the UK by June on “several new points” around the scope of post-Brexit alignment on regulations and safety controls.

He told a press conference that he sees the June summit as a “stepping stone” to October’s deadline for an overall agreement on Brexit but called for substantial progress in the run-up to the June meeting.

“We need to agree rapidly by June the scope of alignment, what I call the safety controls that respect the single market,” he told reporters in Dundalk, speaking alongside Mr Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Mr Barnier called for new proposals from the British to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and warned that unless there was a new proposal beyond the so-called backstop option to keep Northern Ireland under EU economic rules, there was a danger that negotiation could collapse.

“Until we reach this agreement and this operational solution for Northern Ireland, a backstop, and we are ready for any proposal…there is a risk, a real risk” he said.

Speaking to reporters, Mr Varadkar urged the British to alter its approach to negotiations saying that the Government and Mr Barnier’s team were “absolutely united” that there had to be “meaningful progress” by June.

“The United Kingdom’s approach to the negotiations will need to change in some way,” he said.

Both sides needed to finalise the legal language around the backstop - the default option should no alternative solution for the Border be found - in the final withdrawal treaty “so it is spelt out in black and white,” he said.

Mr Coveney warned of “difficulties” at the next EU council summit in June in progress to wider talks on Brexit unless the UK committed to a wording for the backstop.

“The British government has red lines all over the place and expects the EU to accommodate them. We have red lines, so does the EU, but nobody seems to focus on that,” he told foreign reporters ahead of the event.

“It is not okay for the British government to rule out a whole series of options and then pretend that somebody, somewhere is going to find a solution to find a way forward. The next move is Britain’s in the negotiations.”

Mr Barnier, on his third visit to Ireland since the UK’s June 2016 referendum on Brexit, told the forum that both sides would have “to work day and night” over the next few weeks to find a solution to the Border issue.

He told reporters earlier that he was “not optimistic” and “not pessimistic” but “just determined” to find a solution that breaks the logjam between the EU and UK to avoid a hard border.

Asked about the UK’s view that other options could be pursued to avoid the backstop, Mr Barnier said the backstop “isn’t there to change the UK’s red lines; it’s there because of the UK’s red lines.”

The EU and UK differ not just on potential solutions for the Border but on the pace of progress on the issue. Dublin and Brussels want to see substantive progress by the next European Council in June.

The UK’s Brexit secretary David Davis has called the June summit an “artificial deadline”, seeing the deadline for an overall withdrawal treaty, including the Irish issue, as the end of October.

Mr Barnier described the negotiations as “extraordinarily complex” but he sought to strike a conciliatory note with his British counterparts, saying that the EU Commission wanted to work with the UK.

“We want to succeed with the UK, not against the UK,” he said.

At the forum, he appeared to offer an incentive to the British on the Border issue, saying that an agreement to avoid a hard border would “pave the way for broad partnership for the future, not only for economics and trade, but also on thematic cooperation”. He referred to the areas of aviation, education and research, and security.

Mr Barnier rejected the comments of DUP leader Arlene Foster who said on the eve of the event that he “does not understand” the unionist history or position in Northern Ireland, that he was “aggressive” in negotiation and he was “not an honest broker.”

He said he was not ready to engage in any kind of “polemics” but denied ever being aggressive from day one of the negotiations.

“There is no spirit of revenge, there is no spirit of punishment,” he said.

The French negotiator crosses the Border later today to visit Newry, Co Down for meetings with business leaders in Northern Ireland before travelling on to visit Derry tomorrow at the other end of the Border.

Meanwhile, responding to Mr Barnier’s remarks, Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis tweeted that he agreed with the EU negotiator on the “need to move quickly in discussions” and on the “importance of a workable backstop.”

“Our solutions must respect the EU single market and the integrity of the UK. We’ve put forward proposals on the future and look forward to making progress this week,” he said in the social media post.