Barnier says all-UK extension of backstop is not an option

UK proposals are a means of avoiding the need for post-Brexit Border customs controls

An economic arrangement to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland cannot be extended to the whole of Britain, as London has proposed, the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Friday.

 

The extension of the mooted Northern Ireland backstop on an all-UK basis proposed by prime minister Theresa May will not be possible, the UK was told on Friday.

The British proposals are a means of avoiding the need for post-Brexit customs controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, but the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier made clear on Friday that the special arrangements for Northern Ireland, which would see it remain part of the EU’s customs zone, “were devised for the specific situation of Northern Ireland”.

They were “exceptional” measures to safeguard the frictionless border in the context of the Belfast Agreement and cross-Border co-operation, he said.

“Our backstop cannot apply to the whole UK,” he said, also insisting that the backstop could not be a “temporary, time-limited” option.

“Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory – what is feasible for a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK,” he said.

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

‘More questions than answers’

Mr Barnier was briefing journalists in Brussels following this week’s Brexit talks and in response to the publication on Thursday of the the UK paper on a “temporary customs arrangement” solution to the Northern Ireland backstop issue.

He welcomed the paper and what he said was the engagement of the UK in drafting text for the Withdrawal Treaty. He said he was not ruling out any of its proposals but it “raised more questions than answers”.

He also said the “UK recognises that the proposals in its paper cannot qualify as a backstop since the issue of full regulatory alignment is not addressed. We need regulatory alignment to avoid a hard border”.

Alluding to the reality that regulatory divergence between the North and the rest of the UK could mean controls on the Irish Sea, he argued that “checks carried out on ferries are less disruptive than at customs posts along 500km of the Northern Ireland Border”. Similar checks were already in operation, he said.

And he spoke of what he called an “all-weather agreement” on the backstop – “a guarantee that will function in all circumstances”, whether or not a broader trade agreement was reached between the UK and the EU.

“A Backstop means a backstop” and a “temporary backstop does not correspond to what we and Ireland need”, he said.

Exasperation

Mr Barnier said that he was confident that he would be able to present to the EU summit at the end of the month evidence of progress on a number of fronts and emphasised that there would not be the same requirement of “sufficient progress” that previous summits had sought.

He emphasised the absolute requirement for full agreement on the divorce treaty, the Withdrawal Agreement, by October, playing down the significance of what has been seen as a June deadline.

Among the issues which have seen progress this week, Mr Barnier said, were practical measures to co-ordinate North-South regulatory alignment in areas such as agriculture, environment and electricity supply.

In the Withdrawal Agreement strand of talks there were still three main areas of disagreement: on elements of preserving citizens rights post-Brexit, on the future recognition of “geographical indicators” – the special designations of regional products, on which British proposals have not yet been received – and on governance issues, specifically the role of the European Court of Justice.

But he expressed exasperation that “in all the British papers we have received there is a thread of continuity that is quite paradoxical given that this country has itself chosen to leave the EU”.

The UK still seems to wanted to maintain all the benefits of membership, he said, and when the EU replied “that these are simply not available to those outside”, some tried to blame the union for the problem .

“I will not be pressurised by this form of blame game.”