Little optimism in Brussels as talks between EU and UK continue
DUP’s Nigel Dodds says new Barnier offer on Brexit ‘neither realistic nor sensible’
Talks between EU and UK officials are continuing in Brussels this weekend but there is little optimism that a breakthrough is imminent in advance of next week’s crucial vote on the withdrawal treaty in the House of Commons.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, who is on a private visit to Dublin this weekend, will meet Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney for discussions on Brexit, but senior Irish Government sources were downbeat on chances of progress.
Sources in Dublin and Brussels said they expected the focus to move next week to preventing a no-deal Brexit at the end of March, most likely through an extension of article 50.
An offer by Mr Barnier on Friday to make clear that the UK could decide to leave the EU customs union unilaterally – as long as Northern Ireland remained in the backstop to avoid a hard border – was immediately rejected by the DUP.
The backstop is the guarantee to maintain an open border in Ireland if the future EU-UK trade deal requires Border checks.
However, it is hugely unpopular among Tory MPs who have already once voted against the withdrawal treaty which contains the backstop because it threatens to keep the UK in the EU customs union.
The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the proposal from Mr Barnier was “neither realistic nor sensible”.
“It disrespects the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. This is an attempt to get ahead of a possible blame game and appear positive when in reality it is going backwards to something rejected a year ago,” he added.
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay also dismissed the EU proposal, saying: “With a very real deadline looming, now is not the time to rerun old arguments.”
The prime minister, Theresa May, has already rejected a Northern Ireland-only backstop on the grounds that it would create a border in the Irish Sea.
Speaking on Friday in the Lincolnshire coastal town of Grimsby, which voted heavily to leave the EU in 2016, the prime minister urged the EU to make the concessions needed to persuade MPs to vote for her Brexit deal next Tuesday.
“My message to them is: now is the moment for us to act,” she said. “It needs just one more push, to address the final specific concerns of our parliament.”
Earlier, Mr Varadkar said the UK should be offering Ireland and the EU compromises on the withdrawal treaty rather than seeking them ahead of next week’s vote.
“What was agreed was already a compromise – they have failed to secure ratification of this so it should be a question of what they are now willing to offer us, rather then the opposite.”
The Taoiseach added: “We were, and remain, happy to apply the backstop only to Northern Ireland if they want to go back to that. It does not have to trap or keep all of Great Britain in a single customs territory at all, or for a prolonged period.”