Brexit: EU ‘ready to improve’ Irish Border proposal - Barnier

Bloc’s chief negotiator upbeat on prospect of an ‘unprecedented’ free trade deal with UK

A former Border customs hut in the village of Muff, Co Donegal.  EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said he is  ‘ready to improve’ the EU’s proposal to the Uk on the Border issue. Photograph: Mary Turner/Bloomberg.

A former Border customs hut in the village of Muff, Co Donegal. EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said he is ‘ready to improve’ the EU’s proposal to the Uk on the Border issue. Photograph: Mary Turner/Bloomberg.

 

The European Union has signalled a willingness to be more flexible around the Northern Ireland Border in Brexit negotiations with the UK.

There are concerns that sectarian violence could ratchet up in the North if the Belfast Agreement is damaged by the imposition of a hard border when the UK leaves the EU. Efforts to reach an agreement on how to operate a border after Brexit have so far proven fruitless.

The EU’s suggested solution - a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU - has so far been rejected by the UK as an attempt at “annexing” the North.

In the absence of an agreement between the UK and EU on a withdrawal treaty, the UK is scheduled to leave the EU next March without a transition period – meaning that EU laws and agreements would cease to apply to the UK overnight.

The backstop agreed between the EU and UK last December provides for regulatory alignment between the Republic and Northern Ireland in order to avoid customs checks. It would come into effect in the absence of a wider Brexit deal providing for a frictionless Border.

In an opinion piece published on the European Commission’s website on Thursday, chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he was “ready to improve” the EU’s proposal on the Border, which he said was “the biggest risk” in the talks process.

“Since we will not know what the future relationship will bring by autumn 2018, we need to have a backstop solution in the withdrawal agreement,” he said.

‘Better solution’

“The UK agrees with this, and both the EU and the UK have said that a better solution in the future relationship could replace the backstop.

“What the EU has proposed is that Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU.

“We are ready to improve the text of our proposal with the UK.”

Earlier this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stressed that the Government was prepared to be “flexible” on the exact content of the Border “backstop” but was unwilling to compromise on what it must achieve.

He said that while the Government was “totally enthusiastic” about solving the problem of the post-Brexit Border when the EU and the UK agree on a future relationship, the Irish Government would not back down on its insistence that the backstop is part of a withdrawal treaty between the UK and EU – due to be agreed by mid-October.

“We have to have the backstop as well. We have to have that assurance that unless and until a new solution is in place, that there won’t be a Border.

“But yes, we can be flexible certainly on the content of it so long as the outcome is the one that we need,” Mr Varadkar said.

Trade deal

Mr Barnier was also positive about reaching a deal “unprecedented in scope and depth” around free trade.

He warned that UK proposals must not “undermine” the four pillars of the single market - free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, which he called “one of the EU’s biggest achievements”- by seeking freedom only for goods.

“But I remain confident that the negotiations can reach a good outcome,” he said.

“It is possible to respect EU principles and create a new and ambitious partnership.” - PA