Sharp backstop differences between Varadkar and May

EU chief negotiator Barnier says the UK’s White Paper is ‘proven unworkable’

Theresa May delivers a speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, on Friday. The British prime minister challenged the EU to reply to last week’s British government White Paper. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Reuters

Theresa May delivers a speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, on Friday. The British prime minister challenged the EU to reply to last week’s British government White Paper. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Reuters

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the British prime minister Theresa May differed sharply on the Border backstop on Friday, with Mr Varadkar saying it was the UK’s responsibility to come up with a solution, while Ms May insisted it was up to the EU to overcome the logjam in the negotiations that threaten a “no deal” Brexit next March.

At the same time in Brussels, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the British Brexit White Paper was largely unworkable and raised fundamental questions for the European Union.

The statements by the Irish and British leaders and the EU’s Brexit chief on Friday demonstrated the extent of the difficulties over the backstop.

Speaking in Cork, Mr Varadkar said the onus was on the British government “to bring forward proposals that are workable. We are very happy to talk about the wording of the backstop but the outcome must be the same – the outcome must be that in all circumstances that there won’t be a hard border between North and South.”

“We are open to discussions on a backstop that achieves what we want it to achieve. But it must be better or the same as we have proposed,” Mr Varadkar said.

Challenged

But speaking in Belfast, where she was accompanied by members of the DUP, Ms May said: “It is now for the EU to respond, not simply to fall back on to previous positions which have already been proven unworkable, but to evolve their position in kind.”

She challenged the EU to reply to last week’s British government White Paper that proposes a free trade area in goods and agricultural products between the UK and the EU. She said it represented a “coherent package” and a “significant development” in the British position.

In Brussels, Mr Barnier acknowledged several positive aspects in the British White Paper, but said that is not compatible in important respects with fundamental EU values, notably the integrity of the single market, is largely unworkable, and conflicts with EU economic interest.

Both the EU and the UK agreed last December that there should be a “backstop” – a guarantee of no hard border in Ireland even if the two sides cannot agree on a future trade and customs deal. But there has been no agreement on how it would work in practice, or how it can be translated into a legally enforceable text.

Crashes out

The EU has said that without a backstop, there can be no withdrawal agreement – threatening a “no-deal” Brexit where the UK crashes out of the EU next March.

However, some Brussels sources say that with all sides indicating they are willing to consider a new wording for the backstop, a breakthrough would unlock the prospects for a deal on the withdrawal agreement.

Meanwhile the Irish Aviation Authority has confirmed that flights from UK carriers will not be permitted to land in the Republic in the event of a hard Brexit unless a separate deal to cover aviation is struck with the UK government.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Wednesday that the Government was stepping up preparations for a disorderly Brexit, and warned “planes would not fly” in the event of a hard Brexit with no withdrawal agreement struck.