Michel Barnier: Tories' backstop arrangements for border raise 'difficult' questions
BRUSSELS will not be "intimidated" by Britons who try to blame the EU for their inability to secure the Brexit deal they want, chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said.
Mr Barnier said Theresa May's proposals for a backstop customs arrangement in Northern Ireland raise a series of "difficult" questions.
Speaking in Brussels, the negotiator said it was not necessarily "feasible" to extend the EU's offer of continued participation in key elements of the customs union in Northern Ireland to cover the whole of the UK, as the Prime Minister's proposal suggests.
And he said Mrs May's insistence that the arrangement must be time-limited meant that it could not be regarded as a true backstop, providing a fallback option if the UK's preferred permanent solution could not be agreed.
"Backstop means backstop," he said. "The temporary backstop is not in line with what we want or what Ireland and Northern Ireland want and need."
Mr Barnier said it appeared that some Brexit supporters wanted to offload on to Brussels the blame for the fact that the UK cannot continue to enjoy some of the benefits of EU membership after leaving.
But he said: "We are not going to be intimidated by this form of blame game."
Mr Barnier said that "much remains to be done" on withdrawal issues of data protection, geographical indications for food and drink and the resolution of proceedings relating to the UK which are ongoing at the end of the transition period.
In a pointed reference to the absence of Brexit secretary David Davis and his negotiators from Brussels for much of the first half of 2018, he said his team were "happy and ready to step up the frequency of our discussions".
Under the proposals thrashed out by Mrs May in tense meetings with Brexit-backing ministers Mr Davis and Boris Johnson on Thursday, the whole of the UK would remain part of key elements of the customs union until a better arrangement is in place - something which the Government expects can be achieved by the end of 2021.
Mrs May believes this would keep the Irish border open, while avoiding creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the EU's backstop proposal would.
But Mr Barnier said: "Our backstop can't be extended to the whole UK. Why? Because it has been designed for the specific situation of Northern Ireland."
Under the EU proposal "Northern Ireland would form part of our customs territory", he said, adding: "What is feasible with a territory the size of Northern Ireland is not necessarily feasible with the whole UK."
And he questioned whether Mrs May's proposals would deliver an "all-weather backstop" fit for all circumstances.
"The UK calls this arrangement 'temporary'," said Mr Barnier.
"How does that fit with the need to secure the absence of a hard border in all circumstances?
"Moreover, we had agreed with the UK on the principle that public authorities and businesses would need to adapt only once to the new situation created by Brexit.
"Does the temporary nature of the customs arrangement mean that several adaptations will now be needed?"
He added: "The UK recognises that the proposals in its paper can't qualify as a backstop, since the issue of full regulatory alignment is not addressed. We need regulatory alignment to avoid a hard border."
Keeping the whole of the UK inside the EU customs territory after the end of the Brexit transition in December 2020 might mean the EU having to reopen, renegotiate and re-ratify its free trade agreements with a range of other countries, he suggested.
And he added: "The UK tells us it wants to avoid any control. How does that fit with the requirements of our VAT system?"
Mr Barnier said that the UK itself recognised that its proposals raised "relevant and difficult" questions, which would require further discussion.
And he warned that "time is moving on", with less than three weeks to go to the June 28 EU leaders' summit at which Brussels and the Irish government are pushing for resolution of the border issue.
"The time has come today to take decisions and make choices," said Mr Barnier.
He said it was "paradoxical" that in the papers he receives about Brexit from the UK there is a "request for the status quo" on issues when the country took the decision to leave the EU.
He said the UK "needs to accept the consequences" of quitting the bloc.
"There needs to be more trust but there also needs to be more realism about what's possible and what is not possible," he added.
Mr Barnier said he continues to have "great respect" for the prime minister.
But he said: "Theresa May and her team have agreed to the backstop in the March agreement and there is no question of backtracking on that."
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "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.
"Mr Barnier fails to understand that both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have already indicated that his proposed backstop is not acceptable. No Prime Minister could ever agree to any arrangement which would threaten the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.
"The focus must now be on getting a new trade deal. Such a deal will be good for the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and the European Union."