The only way out of the contentious Northern Ireland backstop is for the UK to opt for a much softer Brexit, former European Commission secretary general Carlo Trojan has said.
The Dutchman told a Brexit conference in Galway that a model similar to the existing relationship Norway has with the EU plus customs union would make the backstop "obsolete" but would cross UK's red lines.
Delaying Brexit by extending the Article 50 exit process makes sense, Mr Trojan said, but only if Westminster votes for the EU-UK divorce deal on March 12th and needs “a couple of months” to ratify the agreement.
He questioned the merits of extending Brexit until the end of June if MPs rejected the deal and a no-deal exit.
“What will you solve with a short extension? The situation will be exactly the same,” he said.
An extension until the end of 2020 would create a "worse" and "funny situation" because it would push Brexit into the next EU budget term and the British people would still be sending MEPs to Europe after voting to leave.
Mr Trojan was speaking at a conference organised by the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, NUI Galway's Moore Institute and Queen's University Belfast's Mitchell Institute.
He suggested that one way of addressing the Democratic Unionist Party’s opposition to the backstop would be to give a central role to the Northern Ireland Executive in future discussions “on alternative arrangements.”
This could be done under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, the 1998 peace deal, and endorsed by the EU-UK joint committee established as part of the proposed withdrawal agreement, he said.
“This would not imply a reopening of the withdrawal agreement and could be done by an interpretative declaration and it would give the people on the ground a decisive say in the matter,” said Mr Trojan, who was the commission’s secretary general from 1997 to 2000 and heavily involved in EU peace funding for Northern Ireland.
He warned though that “special status for Northern Ireland may be a bridge too far to obtain a majority in the House of Commons.”
Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers, the party's Brexit spokesman, said that the Government's premature touting of the backstop after its "birth" in the joint EU-UK declaration in December 2017 as "a really big political win" marked a "bad turning point" in souring relations with some British MPs.
“It turned the issue of the backstop into a very toxic issue that we really haven’t recovered from,” she said in a discussion about how Brexit has damaged Anglo-Irish relations.
UCD professor of international relations Ben Tonra said that the possibility of a second Brexit referendum in the UK was "a danger" in how to present it as a "legitimate exercise" given that a significant proportion of the population would say that they voted once and gave instructions to parliament to exit the EU.
He said that another vote was "a possibility" given Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's recent conversion to the idea in the context of presenting a second referendum after "our other two options having failed."
Katy Hayward, an academic at Queen's University Belfast, said one complication was that it was not clear what the result would be given that recent polling showed 40 per cent of the British people were "firmly Remain", 40 per cent were "firmly Leave" and the "20 per cent in the middle could go either way."
She questioned whether there would be majority support in the House of Commons for a second vote.
“I think they are a long way from that, despite Corbyn’s change of mind,” she said.