Brexit: EU ‘obliged’ to check goods at Border if no-deal, says Barnier
Backstop cannot be time limited in bid to avert no agreement, says bloc’s chief negotiator
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier: “When I visited Dungannon in May 2018, I was very struck by my meeting with a group of women . . . Two of them wept because they were so afraid that the Troubles would start again.” Photograph: Getty Images
Mr Barnier spoke in an interview with Le Monde, the Luxemburger Wort and Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita.
Asked what would happen to the backstop if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement, Mr Barnier replied, “We will be forced to take unilateral emergency measures, and in this precise case (of Northern Ireland automatically leaving the single market) we will have the obligation to carry out controls on products arriving in the Republic of Ireland.”
The backstop is a position of last resort, to protect an open Border in Ireland in the event that the UK leaves the EU without securing an overall exit deal. Thousands of people cross the Border daily and goods and services pass between the two jurisdictions without restriction.
Mr Barnier did not say what would happen if the Government refused such border checks.
“My team and I have done a lot of work on virtual, decentralised controls, which will be useful in all hypotheses,” he continued, seeming to hint at digital checks by a computer that links licence plate numbers to a customs declaration that is filed in advance online, as envisioned at the port of Calais.
“Even in the absence of an agreement, we will do our utmost not to create a hard border in Ireland,” he added.
Mr Barnier said that a backstop limited to five years, as proposed by the Polish foreign minister, would not be possible.
“It is Brexit that imposes the backstop we are talking about today,” said Mr Barnier. “And it is what the UK chose. We proposed a more simple one (in which only Northern Ireland would remain in the single market), but London refused that solution and proposed its own (under which the entire UK would remain in the customs union).”
Mr Barnier said he was open to all proposals, including Irish and Polish, since there are 900,000 Poles living in the UK. “But the question of limiting the backstop in time was discussed twice, in November and December 2018. This backstop is the only one possible, because an assurance is no longer operational when it is limited in time.”
Mr Barnier was asked if he could be receptive to British prime minister Theresa May’s request for concessions on the backstop.
“This security net is part of the withdrawal treaty,” he replied. “It is a guarantee for the preservation of peace and stability on the island of Ireland, the guarantee that in all hypotheses we will not rebuild a hard border, that we will preserve the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area.”
Mr Barnier said his meetings in Northern Ireland made him realise how sensitive the issue is and how fragile the peace.
“When I visited Dungannon in May 2018, I was very struck by my meeting with a group of women,” he said. “Two of them wept because they were so afraid that the Troubles would start again.”
Mr Barnier said the backstop concerns all of Europe. “Because of the freedom of movement within the European internal market, a product that enters Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK is the same as if it entered Poland or France. We have an obligation to control it. It must conform with the standards of the internal market.”