Downing Street rejects backstop only for North

Theresa May expresses confidence in Boris Johnson after leaked comments

European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier rejected an arrangement that applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier rejected an arrangement that applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

Downing Street has said Britain will never accept a backstop that applies only to Northern Ireland, following EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s rejection of an arrangement that applies to the whole of the United Kingdom.

“The prime minster has been clear that we will never accept a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. We are also committed to maintaining the integrity of our own internal market. That position will not change. The commission’s proposals did not achieve this, which is why we have put forward our own backstop solutions for customs,” a government spokesperson said.

“All parties must recall their commitment in the joint report to protect the Belfast agreement in all its parts. Michel Barnier has confirmed today that discussions will now continue on our proposal.”

Mr Barnier rejected of two of the British backstop proposal’s most important elements – extending the backstop to the whole of the UK and making it time-limited. Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, on whose 10 votes at Westminster Ms May depends for her majority, said his party could not agree to Mr Barnier’s proposals.

“Michel Barnier’s latest comments demonstrate he has no respect for the principle of consent or the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. This is nothing more than an outrageous attempt to revert to the annexation of Northern Ireland. We will not accept such a proposal,” he said.

Irish response

Irish sources said Mr Barnier’s reaction to the British proposals was more hardline than expected, and attributed this to last minute changes made to the British paper, inserted to satisfy the hard Brexiteers in Theresa May’s cabinet.

However, most sources in Dublin and Brussels said they believed that the threat of a collapse of the talks in June had receded, and that the two sides would “muddle through” the next few weeks and through the June summit, leaving most of the key issues to be settled in October.

One senior figure in Dublin, however, warned of diminishing patience with Mrs May in key European capitals.

There is some concern in Dublin that the question of the backstop, and the broader arrangements for the future relationship that will affect Ireland and the border, will all be settled together in the autumn, raised the prospect of Irish interests being “squeezed” as part of a wider deal.

In the North, the DUP reacted with hostility to Mr Barnier’s statement. The DUP leader Arlene Foster said that the the DUP would “not tolerate the annexation of Northern Ireland” while the party’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that Mr Barnier “has no respect for the principle of consent or the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”.

Full confidence

Earlier, the prime minister expressed full confidence in foreign secretary Boris Johnson but declined to comment on leaked remarks he made at a dinner this week. In a speech to the Conservative Way Forward group, a recording of which was leaked to BuzzFeed, Mr Johnson said the issue of the Irish Border had taken on too great a significance in Britain’s negotiations with the EU.

“It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly,” he said.

The prime minister’s official spokesperson declined to comment directly on Mr Johnson’s comments but rejected the sentiments expressed about the issue of the Border.

“Northern Ireland has been a priority for the prime minister from day one, and will continue to be so,” the spokesperson said.

“It is a priority not because the EU has made it one, but because the prime minister is committed to the union and the emergence of a hard border would put that at risk. I’m not going to engage on the wording, but this is our position and why it is so vital to the prime minister.”

Unpredictable approach

In the speech, the foreign secretary described the Treasury as “the heart of Remain” and suggested that the aggressive, unpredictable approach Donald Trump might take to Brexit talks would have been more fruitful.

During a visit to Germany on Friday, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond said his experience told him that a collaborative approach was generally more productive than a confrontational one.

“Finding a mutually beneficial outcome is the only way forward. That is the firm intention of my government. Theresa May, the prime minister, has said so very clearly,” Mr Hammond said.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called on Ms May to sack her foreign secretary, saying his remarks at the dinner offered further evidence that he was not fit to occupy one of the great offices of state.

“Any prime minister that had any semblance of authority would have got rid of Boris Johnson a long time ago, not just because of comments like this,” she said.