Hopes rise in EU for UK proposals on backstop next week

Leo Varadkar ‘not particularly optimistic’ of receiving written submission before summit

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney  and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU Commission in Brussels. Photograph: AFP

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU Commission in Brussels. Photograph: AFP


Expectations rose in Brussels on Friday night that the UK will submit its long-awaited formal proposals on the backstop to the EU at the end of the Tory Party conference next week.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar renewed his calls for Britain to table written proposals next week, but warned that he was “not particularly optimistic” that this would happen.

“Based on what’s happened in the last month or two I’m not particularly optimistic,” he said in Los Angeles on Friday night. “But there is still time, albeit time running short. And if we’re going to be in position to agree something at the European Council on the 17th and 18th of October we’re really going to need to work that up in the week or two before it.”

Mr Varadkar said it would be “really helpful”to get proposals in writing in the first week of October. “Ones that provide a workable and legally-binding solution to the problem. And that is giving us the assurance that there will be no hard Border between North and South. That the all-island economy will continue to operate, the North side co-operation can continue as envisaged under the Good Friday agreement.”

Brussels again warned on Friday that time was running out for a deal. EU sources here say they do not believe leaders will be willing to enter detailed discussions on text at the summit.

Meetings have been continuing in Brussels at technical level between the two sides, and on Friday Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay met the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Separately, Tánaiste Simon Coveney also met Mr Barnier, and both men complained that they have yet to see “legally operable” proposals from the UK. Mr Coveney spoke of “wide gaps” remaining.

Political will

Mr Barclay said after the talks that the UK remained “committed to securing a deal”.

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“The prime minister has made clear he wants a deal, but there has to be political will on both sides, and that’s what we’re exploring.”

He also insisted the commission was open to renegotiating the backstop.

“President [Jean-Claude] Juncker made clear that he believes a deal can be done, so does the prime minister. President Juncker also said he’s not wedded to the backstop; we’re clear that for a deal to happen the backstop has to go.”

The backstop is an insurance policy guaranteeing no hard Border on the island of Ireland.

London also sees elements of the guarantees Brussels is seeking in any alternative to the backstop as unreasonable.

It is prepared to defend the Belfast Agreement, and the integrity of the single market. However, it is understood to believe the requirement to ensure that Brexit should not affect the all-Ireland economy stretches the reasonable interpretation of the Belfast Agreement.

A requirement that the result of a Brexit outcome on the Ireland economy would be the same as a no-Brexit outcome is an impossible test, it is argued.

They are understood to believe that British prime minister Boris Johnson’s willingness to be flexible on SPS (food and animal health rules) needs to be reciprocated by the EU’s negotiators.

Customs controls

Talks on UK “non-papers” on food and animal health rules and east-west trade have reportedly been difficult, particularly on the need for customs controls on the Irish Sea even if there is regulatory alignment between North and South.

“What the UK will not accept,” says one EU official, “is that regulatory alignment without membership of a customs union is simply not enough. While customs union membership without regulatory alignment is also not enough.”

British sources also deny that it wants to create a deregulated low-standard economy.

Ireland’s focus in the Brexit talks is avoiding a no-deal, but Dublin would be amenable to granting a further extension to the UK if no agreement can be reached, Mr Coveney told journalists after his meeting with Mr Barnier.

“From an Irish perspective we of course think an extension is preferable to a no deal, but I think there would need to be good reason behind that ask for an extension.”


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