EU Brexit negotiator focuses on contentious Irish backstop

Border issue ‘most difficult’ problem during fraught UK exit talks, says Michel Barnier

Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has said that the Irish backstop needs to be part of Britain's withdrawal agreement if a deal is to be reached in October.

Mr Barnier described the Irish issue as “the most difficult” outstanding problem in the withdrawal negotiations. He said the EU and Britain had agreed on 80 per cent of the exit agreement’s content, but that the issue of Ireland remained outstanding. The European chief negotiator for the UK’s exit from the European Union was speaking at the Carnegie Institute in Washington.

“The most difficult is Ireland where we have to find a solution to avoid the return of a hard border,” he said, adding that he had discussed the issue with members of the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

“I am very concerned about the situation,” he said. “The situation in Ireland is not just about goods, controls, checks. It is about people, about peace.”


Mr Barnier added that “we have to be very careful”, saying both sides had committed to protect the Belfast Agreement “in all its dimensions”.

But he indicated that the EU could be flexible on the nature and substance of the backstop.

“We have proposed a backstop. It could be amended, challenged and it could be improved. But we need a backstop to ensure no border.”

The Northern Ireland backstop has emerged as a key stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations. There was little mention of the issue in the 98-page White Paper published on Thursday outlining British proposals for a future relationship with the EU.

London argues that a backstop will not be needed as its future trade relationship with the European Union will be based on free trade for goods as set out in the White Paper.

A British proposal published on June 7th seeks to apply the backstop to Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the UK. But the European Commission has said this is not an option and wants the backstop to apply only to Northern Ireland, something that is opposed by the DUP and the Tory party.

Mr Barnier, who again said on Friday that he wanted to “de-dramatise” the discussions around the Border, said that it was “not a question of a border in the middle of the UK. We want to respect UK unity, we want to respect the constitutional order of the UK”. He added that British prime minister Theresa May had recognised that there will be a backstop “until and unless that we find together a better solution”.

Mr Barnier met with about a half a dozen members of the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill this afternoon, part of a two-day visit to Washington. EU ambassador to Washington David O’Sullivan also attended the meeting.

There should be no return to a hard border

Speaking later, Congressman Richard Neal said he had been encouraged by the discussion with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, who set out the EU’s negotiating position.

“His views were consistent with ours. That is, that there should be no return to a hard border,” he said. “We were very firm that there is not to be any backsliding on this.”

Mr Neal, who was centrally involved in US efforts to establish the peace process 20 years ago, said that the issue of Brexit was being closely followed by himself and others on Capitol Hill.

In a possible sign of looming tensions as the EU assesses the British White Paper, Mr Barnier addressed the British government’s suggestion that the country may be part of some kind of customs market for goods.

The rules are well known by everyone

“As far as trade policy is concerned, it is also possible for the UK to ask to be part of customs union in goods,” he said. But “that means that the UK will be included in our trade policy for goods. The rules are well known by everyone.”

The British PM has said that Britain wants to negotiate its trade deals with other countries after leaving the EU, something not permitted under rules underpinning the EU customs union.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent